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January 12, 2018

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To Burn or Not To Burn: Listening to a Forest

May 16, 2020

This is a personal essay that explores questions we have about forest ecology and fire in the giant tingle forest of southwestern Australia.  


This is a 400-year old red tingle tree.  It germinated sometime in the 1600s. 

This is the forest of the Ancient Ones.  A pocket of forest in the southwest corner of the driest continent on earth, stands some of the tallest trees in the world. 

In one area - now known as the Valley of the Giants - karri, marri, red tingle and yellow tingle trees mix in together, atop a red loam that forms in narrow valleys that wind between isolated granite domes and surround lakes, rivers and inlets, to the Southern Ocean.  Beneath, a complex of ferns, banksia zamia, balga, and tea tree, crating habitat for cockatoos, colourful parrots, magpies, wrens, and criss-crossed by kangaroos, emus, wallaby, possums, and a myriad of other small marsupials many of which I don’t even know existed until I was about 30 years old.  


Currently, there is a debate about how best to manage these forests - whether we should carry out regular prescribed ('controlled') burns to manage fuel loads and protect local towns and properties, or whether to leave the forest essentially 'un-managed', where it is said the forest naturally thins itself out - or maybe something else entirely.  I thought it would be useful to explore these questions with a man that verbally details all the branches of his family tree extending back some 400 years (maybe more), and so is already thinking about things in the lifetime (or time scale), of these trees. 


Uncle Wayne “Wonitji” is a Custodian of this forest, as a Pibulmun-Wadandi man.  He can tell you his family tree that extends back to when this tree pictured above was a tiny seedling. 

 Wonitji and his son Waalitj: Pibulmin-Wadandi. 


I can’t.  I need to refer to my multi-page, bloody complex family tree diagram to go through it all, tracing my convict ancestors and back to parts of Ireland, Scotland, Poland, and maybe ten other countries.  And even then, with all the reference materials and diagrams in front of me, I confuse great uncles and third cousins, until it is a random jumble in my head. 


Uncle Wayne has his family tree all detailed in his head.  The primacy of kinship – family – connection – land – ecosystems.  This is a part of the great genius of Pibulmun-Wadandi People, and all other cultural groups in Australia, I imagine. Uncle Wayne knows his family tree, from a long way back.  He understands them as ancestors, as I do. But he also understands them as still present, as I maybe should do.  They are still with him.  In the forest.  He knows his family tree like an ecosystem.  Interconnected and interdependent.  


For exploring complex issues like biodiversity management, or heritage preservation at the landscape level, he tells me to explore all scales - time and spatial scales.  Long-term history, like archaeology, recent histories, the present - and the place, the complex, the landscape. Only once we have considered all these layers, can we work to practical actions, solutions. But to get there, this level of spatio-temporal understanding,  we need to work together.  To work out how to manage a forest under threat from a host of factors, with trees that have a life cycle of 400 years or so, we need to study and monitor, collect data, collaborate, at many different scales.  


Somehow, Uncle Wayne is able to consider different spatial and temporal scales all at once.  It takes me ages.  As an archaeologist, I look at the world in 5,000 year blocks of time.  We did an dig together at Kwedginup (Dunsborough) and I was pretty thrilled to uncover a chert scraper about 110cms below the ground, that was later associated with a layer radiocarbon dated to 10,500 years before present.  Uncle Wayne was not that fussed - he knows his people have been here, using this area for tens of thousands of years.  He was just as excited to see a layer of artefacts we uncovered in the uppermost deposit, 10-20cms below the ground surface, dated to the last 300 years - as the people he knows by name from his family tree were here at that time.  So he already has a time-scale of knowledge. 


 Excavations at the 10,000 year old occupation site at Kwedginup (place of white bones)


And he knew much about this place from his own experience:


"We literally lived on the beach, amongst the booner wannang [peppermint trees], drawing gabbie [water] from a homemade well that Dad and us older kids dug out and lined by placing old rubber tyres around the edges to keep the sand from caving it in. We fished wattern [the sea] for naralung [herring], koorji-guttuk [bay snapper], ngaree [salmon], we dove for koreil [crabs] and bi-beda [squid], and always we were jinung [looking out for], warnung or moonda [sharks]. We thought we were just playing while our parents were at work and our Grandmother or oldest sister would keep watch but really we were learning our traditions and everything we caught we ate, because otherwise we would have gone hungry.


The Grannies would keep our karla [fire] going and then on the way back to our kalleep we would be shown how to collect the bewell [paperbark], tangil [reeds] and how to prepare our dartcha [food], without upsetting the jangas [spirits]. We were taught the times of year that the kulter [mullet] were spawning in the beelya [river], we would make a fence of dura [ti tree] across the mouth of the beela and wattern [the sea] and we would jump into the gabbie [water] further upstream, all the time hitting the water with sticks or mara [hands] until the fish were tangled up and we could grab them out. Sometimes Mum and Gran would crush up special leaves and all the fish would float to the surface and then we could just scoop them up onto the bank and thread them onto our gidgies or tie them together with yandil, and we would carry them home ready to have a good feed. I guess that’s where we learnt to take only what we could eat and the Grannies were very strict on taking fish, marron or crabs etc. With nurrak [eggs], we were told that if we took the boodjari [pregnant] fish, there would be no more next time we wanted a feed. It was the same when hunting for gnuaren or koomal [possums] or yonger [kangaroo], we only took what was around and if we had to go hungry there was always tomorrow and in reality, with all the manna gum, kwonner [bush fruit], borne and jubitch around to eat, I can’t remember being hungry unless we’d been too lazy to go get it ourselves."


Our job, in heritage, archaeology, is to develop a significance statement of a site or place.  A lot of the time, we fall back on the scientific value - the place is 10,000 years old. It has artefacts that we can study about how people used this landscape, or what activities took place.  A lot of the time, we overlook the cultural value, the TEK of the place, the social significance.  Getting all this information together takes time, but it adds greater value to any significance statement, and so can help protect the place.  And it can also provide a richer understanding of the place, for our ongoing studies, monitoring work, that can provide information into management plans or actions. 


Sometimes, we overlook Traditional Ecological Knowledge as a dataset that can provide information on long-term history as well as current dynamics of a place. The reason we are slow at integrating TEK in our work is a complex one.  But history has some responsibility here.


Since Europeans arrived into this landscape, there has been an uneasy relationship with the Pibulmun. 


Early American sealers and whalers did some unspeakable acts when they encountered people camped along this part of the Southern Ocean coast.  French and English explorers took observations, no doubt of a wary People not wanting to welcome with open arms without some caution given the early atrocities.  European explorers describe in their journals observations of people camped in the forest, using the inlets, and rivers, fish traps, and weaponry, fires for managing the land, creating habitat for plants and animals, shelters designed from local materials, a humble, sustainable lifeway. 


They did not take the time to understand the complexity of this civilization - to truly understand the detailed ecological knowledge of the People.  Where Western scientist are only now coming out of a three hundred or more long process of classification efforts of plants and animals, toward an understanding of southwest ecology, Pibulmun People have embedded a society based on six seasons, geared to movement and use of the land through a sacred ecology, culturally zoning landscape, understanding how species interact with other lifeforms, and climate, and season, embedding this knowledge into stories and song, creating a sacred platform of true scientific understanding of their environment as the key principle of their culture. 


Zac Webb is living and sharing his trans-generational knowledge. 


This lifeway, is manifest today in the knowledge of ecology held by Uncle Wayne and his family, and through the trans-generational knowledge passed down by his ancestors – to him – from well before these giant tingles had germinated as seedlings in the 1600s.  It is hard to compete with trans-generational cultural knowledge of a local region.  You might study aspects of this place yourself, for a few field seasons.  You might write a dissertation.  You might qualify with a PhD and develop the management plan that become the guiding document for how this land needs to be managed and protected.  You will no doubt develop a strong, passionate connection for the forest, the waterways, the plants, the animals, the moss, the dew, sounds, smells of this place.  But there is still a need, a protocol, to consider, learn about, and understand aspects of the Pibulmun connections, and knowledge systems.  A first step is to also understand why we haven’t, as a community, as land managers, as academics, fully delved into the Pibulmun worldview.


Many people like to point out that there is ‘not a very large’ Aboriginal community here.  Some have even said to me that there is no evidence “Aboriginal” people were here at all. They ignore the very places names of their towns and local features;, as a clue.  Or they maybe have not understood the history or colonisation, disease, frontier conflict (don’t say the word ‘massacre’), and a range of successive government policies that involved the forced dislocation of people form their lands, with missions and reserves deigned to break traditional culture and language, and assimilate to a single Western system of living and understanding the world.  They might also forget to see how farmland and clearing took place at central places of the Pibulmun, and then how people had to be removed from land before we could designate vast areas as ‘wilderness’. 


Researchers studying in this wilderness sometimes like to say there are not many ‘sites’ in this area, compared to coastal zones, or places “up north”.  One time, Uncle Wayne and Aunty Toni walked along a new track but through the forest and found a scatter of artefacts extending over 300 metres.  The track provided a window of visibility into the ground surface since leaf litter and sand has buried the last camps of the People.  Imagine what else is out there - what lays beneath?  A wardung (crow) followed us for couple of hours while we recorded this site.  We called it the Wardung Site.


Recording the Wardung Site - a large artefact scatter in the forest - with Uncle Wayne and Aunty Toni



In trying to integrate TEK into all my work, and also my understanding of place when out hiking, I am learning from Uncle Wayne each time we walk through this forest.  He teaches me to first listen to all things.  Listening is a form of study.  It has taken me a long time, to understand that often people who belong to communities that place humans as part of the mix, not on top of the pile, share a common way of communication – they talk in riddles.  No, only joking.  But they often express amazingly complex statements in the most simplistic way possible. 


I remember working with Elders at a rocky outcrop along the Munglinup River, a mound of laterite atop a granite platform with rock-shelters full of ochre, thousands of stone artifacts, and, like a lame-arse archaeology adventure movie, teaming with tiger snakes.  When talking to the Elders about the cultural significance of the place, an Aunty looked at me, smiled slightly, and said: “The Mungan (snakes) are here looking after this place – till the People come back.”  It was in the way that she looked at me that forced to reflect on this statement for days and days.  I ended writing a whole narrative on the cultural significance of this place from that one sentence.  Layered in multiple levels of meaning.  The statement was the basis for the place to be recognized formally as a cultural place under state laws and registered as such.  Her gaze at that moment stays with me forever. 


 Mungan Wilgie Koort.


This is how it is with Uncle.  Most of what he has taught me is form non-verbal expression, in the bush.  Or watching how he interacts with all things – plants, insects, water, animals, wind, smell, spirits.  When he does want me to learn something important, he must verbalise.