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Lake in the Desert - Reflection 3

25th November 2009

If our presence as visitors on the edge of the lake in some way represented the meeting of two different cultures then perhaps it found expression in arrangements with the Park Rangers. Our experienced leader had pre-organized and paid for a Discovery Tour of the "Walls of China." He had begun to negotiate a suitable time early in the week. While we faced the need to fit it into our programme, ‘bush time' knew no such demand. Several approaches were made. No, the rain made it difficult. No, the wind was dangerous. No, further weather was anticipated. Leader Robin remained remarkably patient but gently persistent. I found the delay more testing. The way of the ‘Bush' doesn't try to hurry and it was clear that even on our "go-slow" Prayer Retreat I was still very much a learner.

That sunny afternoon we were introduced to Dadirri contemplation. This aboriginal way of praying that leads to Jesus is suited to the bush campfire. It involves deep listening, quiet, awareness, stillness, and waiting. Like the seasons, Aboriginal folk allow things to follow their natural course. When the night comes they prepare for night. At dawn they rise with the sun. In the words of Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, "There are deep springs with us. The sound is the Word of God---Jesus."

That afternoon I found a quiet spot on the Gol Gol sand foreshore between three cyprus pines. Two had green cover but they had yielded to the direction of the prevailing winds and the drone of steady wind through the branches persisted. That afternoon I hardly did justice to the Dadirri way but thoughts flowed freely and I sensed God's presence in my journaling. The twitter of small finches carried on the breeze and the heads of white daises seemed to nod their approval of my presence. Learning and inspiration can come from developing metaphors (describing something as having a likeness to something else) drawn from the environment. The third tree was tall and it stood erect, dead and completely lifeless. It was annoying because its trunks obscured my view of the other side of the lake, with its thin white line of sand dunes. Metaphorically that tree became every dark barrier that comes between us and the full beauty of the Creator's landscape. It became everything that from my present position in time prevented me from viewing the distant, but full glory of God's plan to unite all things in Christ.

The other intruder on the edge of the landscape and to my right was the giant shearing shed. The shed had merged with the bluebush to take its place in the history of the area but it was an unnatural intruder. Europeans first settled the dry lakes at Gol Gol Station 150 years ago and their arrival had interrupted an Indigenous custodianship of 50,000 years. Today the shed stands to confront us with our inherited attitudes of arrogance that have trampled on a sense of respect for the Indigenous people of this land and their unique antiquity. The shed represented a destructive European colonization with it's denial of language and culture and the introduction of diseases that decimated the keepers of Indigenous knowledge.

The shed was now a monster. The reason for early exploration and the opening up of new land was commercially based. The shed represented a colonial presence that came with a single intent, to exploit the desert and its people. A massive operation was mounted so that by the 1850's Australia was providing half of Britain's wool imports. The greedy pastoralists of yesterday, like today's mining operators and their corporations that seek precious metals, still decimate the ancient cultural heritage, the natural habitat of plants, animals and birds, for quick economic gain.

I thought about the arrival of my ancestors, the old people of my world and my own identity. I thought about my role in obscuring the glory of God's plan and landscape. I had come from an ancient Celtic family that had lived for generations on a Cornish Peninsula known today for its outstanding natural beauty. They were part of a poor underclass of agricultural labourers who worked and lived hard, moving on when necessary to labour in the mines in order to put food on the table. But the issues they faced were not about antiquity or primal hardship. Rather they were closer to the current indigenous quest for a recognized home place and justice. The demands of the farmer, mine boss, the established church and changing markets always left them vulnerable, held tight by a dark cycle of, poverty, famine and death.

My ancestors were also part of the excitement that came with the opening of the New World that offered hope in South Australia. With courage and a passionate vision they left all behind. As economic refugees and free settlers they came to a New World to establish a fair and just society. However they also came to an occupied land and to an indigenous people whose culture was completely unknown and had been inaccessible to them. Over recent months my awareness of our early history had been raised through reading about the history of Australia that we were never told about. It had covered the history of the mainland and different sites in Tasmania. Could my pioneer family be described as victims or oppressors? In a reversal of order had they exchanged one form of oppression for another kind of oppression, the barrenness of poverty for the barrenness of material gain, the barrenness of being oppressed, for the barrenness of being the oppressor?

At the 12th National Assembly it was reported that the church had told "the truth" about its own complicity with the racism of colonial times. The statement for inclusion in the Preamble of the Constitution was important but while aboriginal people showed great respect for their ancestors, the Assembly gave scant recognition to the pioneers of the Christian faith in Australia.

It is true that early missionaries were clothed with a limited understanding and a degree of ignorance that led them to identify Christ with Western Culture, yet many were moved by the Spirit to courageously leave their homeland and through great deeds of compassion and sacrifice they willingly endured extreme hardship in order to share what they knew of the riches of Christ. The fact that the United Aboriginal Islander Christian Congress( UAICC) exists at all as a group in the Uniting Church to witness to the uniqueness of the Christ stands in itself as a testimony to those who first brought the message. They must have got something right!

I couldn't avoid asking myself, "Could the questions I had about reversal seen in colonial emigration, one day also apply to the deeply felt need to make recompense and right the injustices of the past. Could our well intended attempt to find reconciliation in fact spill over to become a form of reverse racism, a cultural war in a different form where European people would be discriminated against?"

Before setting out for Mungo I had picked up a Newspaper. Under the heading, "Part of the Nation", there was a picture of an old aboriginal man. He was blind, hearing impaired and he lived in a tiny galvanized iron hut with no doors. His only company was found in four dogs. His indigenous name had been replaced with the name Nicky Nothing. I had pondered that picture and thought, "How is it ever acceptable in Australia for this man in this condition to be reduced to living in this place? What court of justice allows white ‘Goonyas' to depreciate and violate this man as a person by branding him with the name Nicky Nothing? Why is it that Aboriginal people are four times more likely to be homeless in this country than the average Australian?"

I recalled the life I had seen on the dunes the day before and as if I was prompted I looked back at that old dark cyprus pine that had interrupted my view. There, unnoticed before, at the top of the tree was a nest, not large enough for an eagle, perhaps a falcon or kite nest. There atop the symbol of darkness was a sign of hope and new life that I had missed. Perhaps the size of the old tree that obscured my view, like the size of the issues we are sometimes faced with seemed to detract from the reality of the nest. Even when scarred by intruders it now seemed that the desert had a life of its own that loomed large and towered over its ancient antiquity. Could it be possible that just as another generation had broken through the egg in that nest to mature and soar on thermal winds; could it be that God uses even the obstacles, the injustices in life to His advantage? Like the narrow tracks through the stunted salt bush that appear to serve no purpose, do the seeming obstacles lead us into seeing a new view, a larger panorama of God's plan and purpose? Like the fragile chick in the nest or seeds scattered on the desert floor long ago, beyond the memory of this current generation those embryo's of life itself were transported across the oceans by people prompted by the Holy Spirit to reach out to Indigenous and pioneering people alike. It seemed to me that the cultural vehicle of both the invader and the receptor were limited and both obscured the view of the beautiful white dune horizon, but the nest in the tree was real and it remained providing evidence of new life.

That evening four of our number returned to the compound in high spirit. Unbeknowingly they had stumbled into a restricted area only to discover that the rain and recent erosion of the wind had exposed some strange looking bones in the sand. The mood changed when the possible implications of telling the authorities became clear. Was this another intrusion into sacred space by white visitors? Thankfully, the information was graciously received by the Rangers and an inspection by University Scientist would be arranged. In the silent time following dinner that evening the question was, "How has God touched me today?" More than touched, I felt knocked around and buffeted, but a day of greater intensity was yet to come.

Ted Curnow; Lake Mungo Retreat September 2009

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