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Cosmic Ecology
An Aboriginal View of the World
by Richard C. Murphy, Calypso Log, August 1992

During the last few years, returning home from our Rediscovery of the World expeditions has become increasingly difficult for me. Expedition research and contact with indigenous people have raised unsettling questions, even though the cultural contrasts are fascinating--the foods, appearances, architecture, boats, music, dance, crafts and tools. The real difficulty, however, lies in the shock of reentry into "civilization" and the contrast in life-styles. This shock was particularly intense after the Papua New Guinea and Western Australia expeditions. I've been forced to examine some fundamental questions: Which systems offer a higher quality of life, greater security, more personal freedom, and fulfillment? Which provides a healthful life-style, more leisure, and a greater sense of well-being?

In Western Australia, part of our expedition focused on aborigines. Surely these people, having almost no material possessions, and living on some of the most unproductive lands in one of the harshest climates on the planet, could not make the benefits of civilization questionable. Historical accounts from explorers left no doubt that the great western desert was not suitable to human habitation. Colonel Peter Egerton Warburton wrote of his 1875 expedition "...ants swarmed over everything, and over us; indeed they wanted to take away the cockatoos we had for dinner but we rescued them... deepened last night's well but with no better results than yesterday. Started in a north-westerly direction and sunk another... no water; ... dug three more wells... same unsuccessful results... last known water already 50 miles away... The heat is now very great and the camels are suffering from traveling during the day over hot sand and steep hills... my riding camel has completely broken down... and we could only get her on her legs again by lighting some spinifex (grass) under her tail... master bull camel has eaten poison, and is very ill... Our position is most critical in consequence of the weakness of the camels... God have mercy upon us for we are brought very low... Our miseries are not a little increased by the ants. We cannot get a moment's rest night or day..." It would seem that life for anyone in this environment must as Hobbes' put it be "poor, nasty, brutish and short."

En route from Perth to Broome, I flew over the western desert, a vast blank expanse as desolate as any region I have seen. In the Kimberley region, lush by comparison but still marginal, we scouted by small plane. White Australians spoke of heat and summer flies and wished us luck when they learned ours was to be a summer expedition. We inquired about the traditional people of this region and generally got one of two answers. There was the nineteenth-century American attitude toward Indians as being unproductive and an impediment to progress. The other perspective regarded aborigines as having a very different culture and value system, as deserving equality and as undergoing a difficult period of transition toward a future which would likely blend tradition with modern ways.

We met with scientists and resource managers developing programs with aborigines who would participate in the management of their lands, conduct scientific surveys of coastal marine life and act as park rangers for tourists. We heard stories of aboriginal communities which have rejected foreign religion and attempted to restore their traditional culture. We witnessed the problems of alcohol in aboriginal society and reviewed a treaty draft, prepared by the Sovereign Aboriginal Coalition declaring recognition of aboriginal ownership of Australia, compensation to the New Aboriginal Nation of $1 billion within four weeks of the establishment of a treaty, and entry restrictions to aboriginal sacred sites. Our team helped eighty-five-year-old Patsy Lutundu, an aboriginal woman, return, probably for the last time in her life, to a cave rich in rock art of special significance to her. One team member described Patsy as having an old appearance, a very young mind and the agility of a person half her age.

We learned of scientists who look to aborigines for guidance in using fire to manage the land and for information on the distribution of mammal populations. We explored a landscape inhabited by humans for about 50,000 years but which shows no evidence of their occupation except for artistic carvings and paintings. I came to appreciate a surprisingly complex culture which embodies greater ecological knowledge and wisdom than any I have experienced so far.

Because aborigines grow nothing, build nothing and stay nowhere for very long, many whites thought until recently that aboriginal culture was primitive, simple, savage, and barbaric. The brutal treatment which aborigines have received at the hands of white Australians is testimony to such beliefs. In comparing cultures, Westerners often pass judgment on the basis of material achievements: pyramids, temples, cities, aqueducts, and architecture but sometimes fail to consider the development of belief systems and survival strategies which meet human needs over time. One of my lingering reentry questions has been: Can we call a human system, whether it be a civilization or a culture, successful if it creates the potential to bring about its own demise and incurs in its decline greater hardship and misery than existed before its development? History shows that civilizations are not enduring human systems. From an evolutionary point of view, the fact that aborigines still exist demonstrates that their culture and survival strategies have some redeeming qualities.

The aboriginal view of the universe embodies myth, ritual, totems, songlines, and law, all integrated under what is called "Dreamtime," "The Dreaming" or "Dreaming." This "time" is a sacred period long ago when the universe, humankind and nature came to be what they are. Yet Dreaming also embodies the present and the future; it is "everywhen." As a unifying concept of the world, it describes what happened, the character of events which still happen and the order under which the future will unfold.

According to The Dreaming, after creation earth was inhabited by ancestral beings who wandered across the landscape, molding its features by their actions. A mountain was the site where a being rested; a monolith was a spear used in battle; a gorge was created by the blow of an axe. This was the time when the echidna got its spines, the emu lost flight, and alliances or animosities developed between species. These Dreamtime beings were simultaneously animal and human, and they became the totemic ancestors which spiritually link each person to a particular species or natural object. If someone has an "opossum Dreaming," he or she received the spirit of that totem before birth and will be linked to that species and to other people of the same totem for life. One will not kill or eat an animal of one's totemic clan or marry someone with the same totem. When traveling, one seeks people who share a totem for refuge and companionship. This spiritual kinship between people and nature is an important element in the aboriginal perception of, and respect for, nature.

As Dreamtime beings traveled across Australia, they left a trail of songs describing natural features. These songlines can be used as maps to guide a traveler. Songlines and totems are linked so that a particular songline is known only by members of its particular totem. The songlines crisscross all of Australia, traversing lands of many different clans. Although it is unlikely that one clan member knows the words of an entire songline, the melody would be recognizable, enabling anyone of that songline to position his particular stanza on the entire score. In western terms such songlines have been described as a kind of vocal map or geographical music score. Anthropologists have described the songline singing as guttural and nasalized, "punctuated with screams, whoops, grunts, and falsetto ululation" and "completely different from most other vocal qualities of the world." There is great practical value in songlines; since the ancestors often traveled from waterhole to waterhole, the more easily memorized musical map of the desert provides directions to water in regions not previously visited.

The Law
While Dreamtime beings roamed the surface of earth, creating songlines and natural features, the guiding principles of life were established. These principles, or cultural codes of conduct, include morality, taboos, marriage, initiation rites, etc. Functionally, such laws serve to perpetuate human life and aboriginal culture. These principles also include religious ceremonies relating to the larger system: the spirits, other species and the cosmos. Since there is no great distinction or hierarchy among species, including humans, it is assumed that all other species also have their own codes of conduct or law. Responsibility is a key element; each species has free will to act according to its own law, and actions contrary to the law are seen as being against cosmic order and thus against oneself.

Aborigines believe that the existence of such laws is revealed by the predictability of each species being found in its own habitat, the seasonal production of seeds, the nesting of a particular species of bird in a particular species of tree, and the preference of predators for certain prey. A northern aboriginal myth about the seasons explains how the law creates order: The sun lives in the sky, cooks the earth and nurtures the growth of plants and animals. Rain is a rainbow snake which lives in waterholes and cools and washes the earth. When the earth becomes too hot, flying foxes retreat to waterholes which signal the snake that it is time for action. As the rainbow snake emerges, it spits, causing lightning, thunder and rain. Eventually the rainbow snake becomes dangerous, whereupon other forces take charge. The wind comes and breaks the snake's back and the sun burns it, ultimately taking over and initiating a new cycle. Each of these spirits acts independently according to its own law but combines forces when necessary to restore order and balance in nature.

Just as each species and spirit behaves according to its law, so too must humans abide by their laws. Yet all is not rigidly fixed. Anthropologist Deborah Rose describes aboriginal resource management and responsibility: "Yarralin people protect a death adder site for instance, trying to assure that it not be damaged because any disturbance would result in an overpopulation of death adders...Reverence for life is a quality which is fundamentally characteristic of aboriginal life, pervading every aspect of daily and ceremonial life."

This web of relationships guided by the law includes those between individuals, such as people of like totems, relatives, husband and wife, parents, and children. And it extends from individuals to nature wherein children are part of the region of their birth; everyone is linked to their totemic species, and each person is connected through his or her songline to geographic features which embody living ancestor/spirits. "Life then in Ngaringman/Ngaliwurru thinking is the cosmos. And to be alive is to be conscious - to know and follow one's own Law, to recognize that other consciousness exist and to interact responsibly with others. Yarralin people's environment is alive, conscious and pays attention. Human actions are noted, just as humans note the actions of other living beings. This cosmic awareness is only possible because all `cultures' (human and nonhuman) are subject to the same moral principles of response, balance, symmetry and autonomy... The cosmos `works' not because a supreme deity regulates it, but because all of the parts regulate each other."

Cosmic Ecology
At some ill-defined time in the past, the Dreamtime beings ceased to occupy the landscape and metamorphosed into other forms such as rock outcroppings, waterholes, hills, or other features. But they did not die; their spirits remain alive, giving great significance and power to these sites. Consequently, supernatural beings important to aborigines do not live out of touch in the great beyond, but rather, they reside among the people, in their homes and places of business.

Consider the behavior of Westerners in a great cathedral or in the presence of an important religious figure: One is humble and reverent, speaking gently and behaving respectfully. In most of us, a strong ethical code makes desecration of a beautiful cathedral unthinkable. Imagine extending this attitude and behavior to the environment in general as though the entire planet were a temple. Consider the consequences in one's sense of well-being and in one's treatment of the planet.

As might be expected, the aboriginal relationship to land does not involve individual possession. Land, spirit and self are inseparable, and thus land can no more be sold than can one's soul; the connections are too great. The oneness implied in the aboriginal concept of self, surroundings and time indicates a belief system with great ecological value. Rather than superior to nature, aborigines see themselves as key elements in maintaining a harmony among the component parts of nature, which must obviously involve an intimate knowledge of natural history. People must read the tracks and signs of life which indicate that something has recently passed by or lies below the ground. They must know the behavior of animals and the cycles of various plant species to predict where and when food can be found. As the white explorers learned, such knowledge can mean the difference between life and death.

Yet the world view of Aborigines is spiritual rather than ecological. This may not be surprising since culture has evolved within the constraints of the physical world. Anything not sustainable in an ecological context would be self-defeating and thus have been eliminated from the culture as those who maintained the culture were themselves eliminated by natural selection.

It would be presumptuous for any of us on expedition to feel our brief exposure to Aboriginal culture entitled us to comment on the Aboriginal way of thinking. But the ecological quality of this culture deserves discussion. Anthropologists have been universally impressed with the Aboriginal way of dealing with the challenges of life and with other members of the community. W.E.H. Stanner, a respected student of Aboriginal culture , states, "...he (the Aborigine) seems to see `life' as a one-possibility thing. This may be why he seems to have almost no sense of tragedy. One may say, their Ideal and Real come very close together... One of the most striking things is that there are no great conflicts over power, no great contests for place and office. This single fact explains much else, because it rules out so much that would be destructive of stability... Power over things? Every canon of good citizenship and common sense is against it, though there are, of course, clear property arrangements. But what could be more useless that a store of food that will not keep, or a heavy pile of spears that have to be carried everywhere? Especially, in a society in which the primary virtues are generosity and fair dealing. Nearly every social affair involving goods - food in the family, payments in marriage, intertribal exchange - is heavily influenced by equalitarian notions; a notion of reciprocity as a moral obligation; a notion of generously equivalent return; and a surprisingly clear notion of fair dealing, or making things `level' as the blackfellow calls it in English... The blacks do not fight over land. There are no wars or invasions to seize territory. They do not enslave each other. There is no master-servant relation. There is no class division. There is no property or income inequality. The result is homeostasis, far-reaching and stable." Stanner goes on to reassure the reader that Aborigines fall prey to all the human failings we know so well but the extent to which they impede social order or bring harm to others is far less than in most other cultures.

Quality of Life
With no wheels, no metal, no pottery, no fabrics, no domesticated animals, no agriculture, no written language, and no permanent dwellings, the traditional aboriginal culture has fared remarkably well, if survival for over 50,000 years can be a criterion of success. But survival says little about what we would call quality of life. Such crosscultural value judgments are difficult to make, maybe impossible, and it is probably more appropriate to look at the question in terms of the extent to which the more important human needs are met.

Having sufficient knowledge of ecology and living within the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, aborigines harvest natural resources without a sense of urgency. There need be no battle against time or the elements when resources are sufficiently abundant. Hunting and gathering can take as little as twenty hours per week in some tribes. Depending upon the tribe, anthropologists have recorded between one hundred and three hundred species of plants and animals which sustain aborigines year round. This ecological diversity provides aborigines with a balanced and healthful diet. Having spent extensive time in the western desert, anthropologist Robert Tonkinson concludes that the Mardudjara people "suffer few serious ailments and probably have a life expectancy of fifty to sixty years...In terms of mental health, it could be assumed that since these people live in what is probably the world's most marginal environment for human survival, they are tense, morose, and anxiety-ridden because of all the uncertainties created by the capricious nature of rainfall in the desert. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth...the Mardudjara seem to be very well-adjusted people. They are every bit as complex and given to behavioral idiosyncrasies as any other peoples, with the same capacity for exultation and despair...[They] have a keen sense of humor that pervades all their activities, including ritual. There are very few occasions so awe-inspiring or momentous in their religious significance that laughter and joking would be thought out of place... But the fact that people can maintain such a spirited and positive outlook in an environment as tough and mercurial as the desert speaks volumes for their strength of character and their great confidence in the law, which answers life's biggest questions and attests that the human spirit is invincible."

As with most hunters and gatherers, the older members of society are heavily involved in baby-sitting, educating and nurturing the next generation. Thus, senior citizens become a resource to the community rather than a liability. Regarding conflict, "There is no word for either feud or warfare in the language of the desert people."

Returning home after this expedition was intensely unsettling. I had no interest in nor was I capable of "returning to nature" aboriginal style. Yet I did not feel capable of reentering my own "civilized" world which involves such effort, insecurity, consumption of resources, impact on the biosphere, and frenetic pace.

How could our overburdened, anxiety-ridden system have come about? I wondered how the mentality of a herdsman or farmer, predecessors of civilization, might have differed from that of a hunter and gatherer, and how the world view of each might have influenced the course of their cultural evolution? In contrast to the hunter and gatherer, a pastoralist, for example, nurtures a species totally under his control with the sole intent of harvesting food and fiber for himself. The sheep's life and well-being are considered almost totally in the context of its value to humans. In the path toward civilization, humankind has subdued, taken dominion over, and controlled other species. Whether this is good or bad is not the point here. The fact is that the mentality and world view of early pastoralists and farmers and hunter-gatherers may have been fundamentally different. As pastoralists and farmers settled, equality among species was likely replaced by a hierarchy of dominant and subordinate, more powerful and less powerful, superiority-inferiority, etc. History has shown that it is not a great leap to extend such hierarchical thinking to other "non-selves," including different races, cultures and religions. The existence and consequences of the resulting prejudices are deeply embedded in our cultures and become especially obvious in the light of such cultural comparisons. Our "dominion over the earth," our need to "control animal impulses and drives," our patronizing attitudes toward "lower forms of life," "dumb beasts" and even "primitive cultures" attest to the destructive attitudes of separateness and inequality between "them" and "us."

Exercising control, whether it be over crops, herds or people, requires work. It is only logical that civilizations and religions based on exploitation and dominion/dominance would promote and hold in high regard a work ethic since, of course, the institution would directly benefit from the fruits of righteous labor. And what would be the predicted view, in such societies or religions, of nomads who believe humankind is no better than rocks, wombats or weather, and of hunters and gatherers who construct nothing, possess almost nothing and go through life naked? It is interesting to note that quality of life, a sense of place and belonging, feelings of contentment and inner peace, and an ethic of equality and unity of all things seldom emerge as the key elements in comparisons of "primitive" versus "advanced" societies.

At the dawn of civilization, the differences between husbanding animals and farming crops as contrasted to hunting and gathering were likely small. But from our contemporary perspective, it would appear that the implications were enormous. Which strategy/mentality is better? Possibly one way to compare is to take each component of the aboriginal view of himself and the world around him, and our view of life, and extend them into the future, asking whether the consequences of each supports or undermines the vitality of the planet and the quality of human life.

For Further Reading:

Chatwin, Bruce. The Songlines. Viking Penguin, Inc., New York, 1987.

Lofgren, M.E. Patterns of Life, The Story of the Aboriginal People of Western Australia. Western Australian Museum Information Series No. 6. Perth, 1975.

Rose, Deborah Bird. "Consciousness and Responsibility in an Aboriginal Religion." In Traditional Aboriginal Society, A Reader. Ed. W. H. Edwards. Macmillan Co., Melbourne, 1987.

Stanner, W.E.H. "The Dreaming." In Traditional Aboriginal Society, A Reader. Ed. W. H. Edwards. Macmillan Co., Melbourne, 1987.

Tonkinson, Robert. The Mardudjara Aborigines, Living the Dream in Australia's Desert. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1978.

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