Emu Sky: A Resilience by Leah Hunt
When I first heard about Emu Sky it was from my good friend Maddi. During lockdown she had participated in a program about producing podcasts, and had learnt the ins and outs of recording equipment. She had been approached by the curator of Emu Sky to produce a soundscape of her own for the exhibition.
Her idea was to interview Aboriginal women about Country. It quickly became a regular topic in our video chats during lockdown. I provided advice, and suggestions of who she could interview. Then Maddi asked me if I would like to be interviewed.
On the day of the interview Maddi came and picked me up in her little Volkswagon Polo, and we drove out to Kinglake, where Maddi grew up.
We talked and laughed, the whole way up into the mountains, watching the city fade out in beautiful Country. As we climbed higher we began to talk about the fires of 2009, and Maddi told me about the Mountain Ash. The beautiful big old trees that are so famous within the region.
They had all been killed by a fire that burned way too hot for Country. Trees that had been witness to generations, that had seen Wurundjeri people cultivate and renew Country with fire, had been killed by fire. Maddi pointed out the ghost forests of dead mountain ash on a distant peak, and told me that no one was able to go up there anymore, because the dead mountain ash trees were falling, without warning, it was too dangerous.
Country should never be described as dangerous. To hear that come from Aboriginal lips seemed foreign.
A situation that arose from the mismanagement of Country that has defined the last 250 years of invasion. I wondered how long it would be before Country would be deemed safe enough for visitors to return. I wondered how long it would be before Country would be deemed safe enough for Wurundjeri to return.
We pulled into Maddi’s family property, along an old dirt road, before it became 4WD only. There’s a house that is quite homey, and a stable for Maddi’s mums’ horse, who is obsessed with Liquorice and fetches orange traffic cones. There is an open area, that then has two paths splitting from it, one that will take you to the paddocks where the herd of older horses live, and the other path which leads towards the dams.
On either side of both these roads is mountain forest, gumtrees and ferns, in all shades of green; you can feel the dampness in the air.
I have brought my Nana’s jacket with me, it’s a long blue puffy with a hood that tucks away. I distinctly remember her wearing it when she would come along on Saturday afternoons to watch mum and I play hockey. There are still some of the unused tissues that Nana’s seem to take with them everywhere in the pocket. I find myself unable to throw them away, wishing I could talk to her about today. I wish I could introduce her to Maddi.
Wrapped in my nana’s jacket, and wearing my mum’s boots… sometimes you just need elements of the matriarchy… and a quick hug from Maddi’s mum, Maddi and I start our trek to find a place where we can lay down the picnic rug, and sit down and have our conversation about Country. I have brought my camera, and Maddi has her recording equipment.
We stop, and I take some photos of the bush, and the dams, and Maddi tells me about the adventures of her and her brother, similar to the stories that I have about the adventures of my sisters and myself on our family property.
Maddi records some of the birds, Galahs, that are chatting away with each other in the trees. “I’m going to overlay these on the recordings”, Maddi tells me as we continue walking.
I’m still not used to mountains, and equally not as keen on them. My Country is mostly flat, long plains with the occasional rise, green, as far as the eye can see in winter, and gold, all throughout summer. I can’t imagine this forest country as dry, back home, dry is a hot north wind on a 35–45-degree days, the heat lasts from October to April.
Summer hangs around on my Country. I’ve noticed on Wurundjeri Country summer is fleeting.
We settle on the blanket next to one of the dams. Maddi begins recording me, and I have a rather one-sided conversation about Country, with Maddi prompting me with questions and answering with spiels around language, culture, parents, and grandparents, memories that aren’t my own. They have been handed down to me, about my uncle in Vietnam, and my great uncles somewhere in WWII, and my great grandfather heading back home to Framlingham and going ‘AWOL’ during WWI because of his sons death. My mums story of almost being taken by the welfare, and a harrowing escape that would leave them with virtually nothing, but at least they were able to stay together. A sugar glider that used to live in the tree next to the kerosene tin hut that my mum grew up in, while living on an Aboriginal reserve. Stories of survival, and of people who didn’t have a choice but to live day by day, because the future was too bleak and too much to think about before it happened. I talk about my mum who was told by one of her teachers in primary school that she was a dying race. She was 6 and she would try to stay awake as long as she could at night to get the most out of her life, because she believed she would die soon.
She was eight when the referendum occurred, and she went from not being a citizen and being denied human rights to suddenly becoming a citizen of a Country that she inherited from generations before.
I talk about work, as I was still working with the Ancestral Remains Unit, in the repatriation space, I delve into healing country by bringing home the Ancestors, repeating a mantra that I have been told my entire life.
I talk about the constant backdrop in all these stories, Country. I am the proud descendent of six different Nation and Language groups. I talk about how I identify as them all, even though there are a lot, and usually people identify as one or two or three. I identify as them all because each one of my Ancestors survived an event and the repercussions of this event that could only be compared in modern day constraints to an alien invasion.
I reflect on the year I spent at home and on Country during 2020 when the pandemic began, and reflected on how I am a kinder, and happier person when I am back where I belong, and I remember the pain that I felt over having to leave it again.
In some ways I consider myself to be a refugee within Australia. I have had to leave my traditional homelands, my Country to move to Wurundjeri Country to study, and work towards better outcomes for my people. I am forced to live on a Country that I don’t belong, that doesn’t make sense to me, and doesn’t sing my songs. But this isn’t the first time Wurundjeri Country has offered shelter to my family, and it definitely won’t be the last.
We finish my recording and Maddi pulls her clap sticks out from her bag. I pick them up, admiring the fine work that went into them. They are beautiful and polished, contemporary. Different from the ones I would play around with at Nanas house, pointed ends with curves in the wood, and patterns burnt into them by a hot piece of wire. I tap them against each other, they have a good sound, and tap them in a slow rhythm in threes. Tap… one… two… three… Tap.
The birds have gone silent, its getting late, and I wonder how long has it been since this Country last heard clap sticks?
Maddi’s mum comes and finds us with one of the dogs, and we slowly make our way back up to the house, I’m looking forward to a cup of tea.
On the drive back to Melbourne, I reflect on how I am glad that my Country isn’t covered with a dirty great big city. Maddi talks about Darug Country, and the great big dirty city sitting on top of it. “Country is still there”, she tells me, “You can move Country, you can damage Country, you can dig holes deep into Country, and you can gut and destroy Country, but the essence of Country will always be there”.
I reflect on this when I get home, it dawns on me that we are resilient because Country is resilient, and Country is resilient because we are Resilient.
I hear bits and pieces from Maddi about the piece, she talks about interviewing my mum. Mum talks to me about her interview, and how she thinks she did a good job. I know she did.
I arrive at the opening, at Melbourne University. Even though I’ve been to this university a few times, the colonial vibes always strike me. I am guided by the smell of wet gum leaves on a fire, and follow the scent to one of the quadrangles at the university, where the smoking pit is set up and next to the exhibition. I see Maddi, and I eventually find mum, and we watch the opening, and listen to words from wise Aboriginal women.
I decide to go through the exhibition from the beginning, at Aunty Joys piece, I am struck by the artistry and ingenuity that has gone into the exhibition, on the floor are stars, where if you stand on top of them, you are in a sound shell with a speaker listening to one of Maddi’s recordings of the artists.
There are stickers on the windows of the doors that you walk through when entering the exhibition, they don’t look like much, until you realise it represents the patterns in the trunk of the river white gum from the grubs that live under the bark.
The beautiful big grindstones, that sit in the middle of the room are instantly eyecatching, there is a giant emu print representing the Emu in the sky in many of our dreamings. Some of the stars are actually lights that flicker on and off. Digging sticks, representing women and their cultivation practices have been carefully crafted and decorated.
Core Samples have been taken from Country in Victoria and Tasmania, demonstrating that the lack of ash layers in the core, leads to the belief that there were no big devastating bushfires when Country was looked after, not like today, with poor land practices, and communities who live separately to nature.
There is a massive colonial room, with a big table, that can seat many people, and a big colonial chair at the end. Placed on this table is Abundance, a collection of grains and tubers, and fruits, all used by Aboriginal people for food, and medicine, beautifully carved emu eggs, paddles and woven baskets, water carriers made from barks, and grinding stones.
Next to this is a beautifully made possum skin cloak, and I want nothing more than to wrap myself up in the soft fur.
There are posters on a room that show native plants, and their Wurundjeri Woiwurrung names, and another poster asking the audience one question. Why don’t you know me?
The exhibit that I have contributed to is outside, near the smoking pit. There are five listening pods set up with stools in them, and a speaker box. Around these pods are baby river redgums, the idea is that when someone listens to the piece, the baby redgums will be listening too and will grow up with the wisdom of Aboriginal Women. There is a pod that has paper and pencils in it, inviting the listeners to write a note with positive thoughts and take aways from the exhibition, that will be burnt, and the ashes spread with the redgums when they are planted.
I sit and press play. Maddi opens the piece, and then the interviews start, Maddi has carefully curated her piece to tell a story, interweaving the interviews to a tell a narrative about how important Country is to Aboriginal people, and highlighting the knowledge that is still held in Victoria about Country, about spirituality, and ancestors, and connections to lore, and how interconnected Aboriginal cultures are to each other, the lore, and Country.
I felt as though, I had stepped into the realm that I constantly find myself in, a perfect balance of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life. Emu Sky is in and of itself, an ode to the resilience of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal Country.