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Voice, Climate and Caring for Country

Could recognising and giving First Nation people a voice help our nation withstand the climate crisis?

“I am only Aboriginal because non Aboriginal people came here,” said Waradjuri woman Jennifer Ashton. “When in 1778 people from the other side of the planet put their feet down here, that’s what made me Aboriginal. That’s how history shaped me.”

Newman, was at the GalleryEast to open my exhibition Phoenix Blooms, Wildflowers and Ash in Clovelly on September 28. She described her journey under the gaze of a full moon from inner west swamp country to the eastern seaboard, ‘Gadie’ country, with such detail and knowledge of the earth under the tyres of her car that the almost all Anglo Celtic audience were left spellbound. For us the same journey would be mostly a glimpse of concrete, bitumen and bush.

Introducing my painted images of wildflowers growing among the charcoal and ash remains of the Kangaroo Island fires, Jennifer described the visual pleasure and love of country she found in them. Looking deeply into images she described the layers of colour, technique and rebirth.

“To come to the gallery to see regeneration of country after devastation is a special gift to me – my eyes, my heart, my imagination,” she said “Fires are an amazing element and have amazing character. They are devastating. Their ferocity and force push humans back. But these days we know things about fire and how important it is. Some plants need fire, heat and smoke to regenerate.”

Newman recounted travelling home to central NSW after the Black Summer fires, watching the renewal on the edges of the Gospers Mountain.

“The first time I went there my heart was heavy for country seeing those blackened trees and blackened trunks,” she said. “Then a little bit later came those incredible green shoots.”

Some places are still bare. The land still bears the scars.

“But out of that fire season we’ve all come together with incredible recognition of Aboriginal cultural burning,” she said. “Cool burns, circle fires – there’s a lot of science in cultural burning. It’s old, old knowledge. And it’s about that connection to country.”

Newman is upbeat about the future. People, she said, are becoming more connected to country and can read signs of earth.

“More (Australians) have respect for knowledge First Nation people carry in our hearts and our minds and our feet when we walk across country.”

Newmans’ enthusiasm for the referendum to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament was not dampened by the polls.

“Our land was never ceded and we were never extinguished,” she said. “We co-exist.”

Noting the many fires burning across the country, Newman warned of a fiery summer to come.

“It’s hot, its dry. Fires are coming back,” she said.

“Wiradjuri people have lived through a couple of ice ages and many fire seasons,” she said. “Can we help turn around climate change? I wonder. Can we slow global warming? I don’t know. Can we work together to take better care of the planet as a whole in our local area? I think we can.”

PHOTO Debbie Sleigh


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