The elephant in the room

So lets get to it. I live outside the village of Nimbin, in northern New South Wales, on a property that overlooks Nimbin Rocks, a 40 million year-old geological formation that is a sacred site for the Bundjalung nation and was once a burial ground for the Clever Men of the Widjyabal people.

The Nimbin Rocks

Fortunately – and as odd as it may seem to say this – the Rocks are on private land, on one of the many local communes that ring Nimbin. Indigenous people still have access to the site, and are engaged in a large-scale bush regeneration project there, but the restricted access ensures that tourists are not free to climb the Rocks (and shit all over them), as is the case with Uluru.

Last year, I happened to be in Sydney at a public event where there was a Welcome to Country delivered by a Cadigal elder of the Eora nation. He made his welcome, eyes sweeping the crowd, by saying, ‘This is Cadigal land, always has been Cadigal land, and always will be Cadigal land.’ He wasn’t mucking about. While the welcome in his voice was genuine, he wasn’t, so to speak, giving ground. And neither should he, we might say.

A few weeks ago, somewhere in the Overland blogosphere, some comments were made – reporting something Jeff Sparrow said at the launch of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Gil Scott Heron is on Parole – about the conservatism of Australian fiction.

The conservatism and timidity of Australian fiction – which is also by more than implication, the conservatism of Australian publishers – is an odd thing that doesn’t seem to want to go away. And perhaps tell us more about who we are as a nation than we would care to know. Australian fiction, and a lot of other fiction, seems to take place in an apolitical landscape, maybe because we feel it’s easier to get at Universal Truths that way. Jeff Sparrow referenced climate change. He wanted to know why we aren’t writing about it? It’s a highly salient question. If there’s a bigger elephant in the room than climate change I’m buggered if I know what it is. If there were, it would need its own warehouse because all the rooms I can see are already full of elephants with the words Planetary Catastrophe tattooed on their hides.

Like indigenous dispossession, climate catastrophe shadows the whole of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If we can’t write with the full consciousness of that shadow over us, what the hell are we writing?

It’s not about trying to fit an indigenous eco-friendly character into your novel, or writing novels full of didactic speeches. It has very little to do, I’d venture to say, with being incredibly topical or writing about Copenhagen and climate science. (And before I forget, have a look at John Crace’s hilarious review of Ian McEwan’s ‘climate change novel’ Solar.)

It’s probably got more to do with the depth of our awareness of just where we are living: on stolen land, on an ecologically devastated continent. Meanwhile, an inexorable planetary disaster unfolds around us. An awareness of this situation could enable us to write, give texture and ambivalence to our work, enable us to track and expose and map the fault lines of where we live – do we have the chutzpah to look at the gorgon and draw our own conclusions about what it means to be here?

To put it in the form of a non-rocket science thought experiment: I am put on a planet where strenuous efforts have been made to dispossess and exterminate the indigenous population. For all I know, the land on which my comfy house sits was land acquired through the slaughter of an extended family, or an entire clan. Because of an insane and staggering practice of greed, acquisition and cultural blindness, the planet is fundamentally changing its own structure and may cease to support life.

Someone gives me a pen and says, Now you must write.

The Dark Mountain Project, a UK-based outfit just getting itself together, looks like an attempt to come to grips with at least some of this kind of thinking. It’s British so its… Well, it’s British and their post-colonial dilemmas are different from ours. An Australian version, if we could negotiate the volcanic chasms of our own fractured position, here at the far side of the world, would whup their asses.

Anyway, when exhorting guest bloggers to blog, Overland reminded us that it is, in fact, a blog. You know, the Internet. So in that spirit, and because I can and because it’s a good a way of summing up my first Overland blog, lets cut to the legendary Nungah band No Fixed Address, in a recently reformed incarnation. In 1981 in Adelaide, along with their Nungah brothers Us Mob, nobody did better gigs. And nobody was saying stuff like this:

And with that, I would like to acknowledge that I wrote this blog on land of which the elders of the Bundjalung nation are the Traditional custodians, and pay my respect to Elders of both the past and the present. I would like to further acknowledge that this is Bundjalung land, always has been Bundjalung land and always will be Bundjalung land.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Jacinda just linked to a piece that seems quite relevant here.

    The government’s acknowledgment of traditional owners of land at official functions risks becoming ‘tokenism’, Opposition leader Tony Abbott says.

    The Rudd governments acknowledgment of the traditional owners of land at official functions risks becoming mere ‘tokenism’, Opposition leader Tony Abbott says.

    It was not always necessary to mention indigenous owners and often it was an empty gesture, he said.

    “There’s a place for this in the right circumstances but certainly there are many occasions when it does look like tokenism,” he told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

    “To do it as a matter of course, to do it automatically, it does just look like formalism.”

    Mr Abbott has told News Limited that acknowledging traditional owners is “the kind of genuflection to political correctness that these guys (Labor) feel they have to make”.

  2. Wow. That’s amazing. I take my hat off to Tony Abbott. In his brief statement is encapsulated every despicable episode and instance of political chicanery in 230-odd years of indigenous dispossession: I am concerned about indigenous welfare and tokenism because the Government policy of acknowledging country is tokenistic and they don’t mean it. Therefore it is better not to do it at all. Therefore, by implication, it is actually racist to acknowledge country. Except in specific instances. Which I will decide on.

  3. Yes. Though I will say, I have sometimes felt a little uncomfortable during the welcome to country ceremonies. Like, what if the indigenous elders didn’t actually want to welcome an event? Would it still take place?
    I mean, I’d much rather be in a culture that at least recognised an indigenous presence through such ceremonies than one that didn’t, but I do think it’s easy for bureaucrats just to turn the whole thing into a safe piece of multiculturalism that doesn’t actually have any political heft at all.
    Would be interested to know what others thought?

  4. yes, lets have more comment. One thing should be clarified though. Welcome to Country can only be given by an indigenous person. Acknowledgment of Country can be given by anyone.

  5. Brilliant post Stephen.

    I received a zine the other day in the mail, and on the back was the note:

    ‘This zine was created on land stolen from the Wurundjeri people.’

    What struck me was the honesty in the statement. I’ve always been extremely uncomfortable with the adoption, by Masters of Ceremonies, of the words ‘traditional’ owners as a substitution for ‘rightful’ owners.

    I do like ‘is… always has… and always will be…’

  6. Last year I was MCing at a launch and I didn’t acknowledge the rightful owners of the land we were on because I’d checked out if any of the other speakers were going to do so and the Mayor of the city where the event was being held, was going to. Someone told me later that the proper protocol is to acknowledge the rightful owners, elders past and present, first. ‘Oh!’ I said feeling as guilty as hell. ‘But,’ the same person said, ‘at least you had indigenous people at the event. People often are ready with the acknowledgement and there’s not an indigenous person in cooee.’

    She didn’t mean an acknowledgement wasn’t important if there weren’t Aboriginal people around to hear it. She was commenting on the fact that we’ve driven them out of their land etc.

    My point is we do so many things out of a sense of ‘protocol’ rather than with any real depth of feeling or sustained action that, in itself, it can cause derision.

    The elephant in the room for me is we took their land and, consequently, their way of life and we’re not working with them to make amends.

  7. Yes, brilliant post. And how apt to tie together the ancient owners of this continent with the white elephant of climate change and the apolitical landscape of most Australian fiction.

    I think Alexis Wright’s ‘Carpentaria’ not only addresses all of the above in direct and indirect ways, but is the best Australian novel I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a few).

    Not least because its deep understanding of this land (or the land and sea of Carpentaria) and the cyclical nature of time and storytelling flies right in the face of the linear rational ‘Enlightenment’ thinking that led us to this climate change catastrophe in the first place.

  8. that crace piece is gold.

    explicit political agendas usually wreck fiction because it is supposed to be curious. having said that, there is plenty to be curious about, and some of us are trying to write about this business.

    i’m also curious about the conflation of indigenous self-determination and climate change. like, if we just learn to understand ‘country’ and pat each other on the back we will suddenly stop driving cars and bulldozing forests. hmm.
    i feel like there’s an idealisation of indigenousness at play here, but maybe i’ve just been in the Territory too long.

    nothing personal, but i am formally declaring a boycott of the elephant in the room. i have analogy fatigue.

  9. hmm indeed jenjen. I’m not sure where anyone said if we just learn to understand country and pat each other on the back we’ll stop driving cars etc.

    Perhaps I’ve listened to too many indigenous elders tell their law but I’ve found their connection to the particularities of place, their understanding of the mutual relationship of humans and the world around us, and of the ‘long term’, far more thought-provoking and enlightening than most things I’ve read in books or heard from Canberra or Copenhagen.

  10. jenjen and all. Thank you for this very interesting discussion.I don’t think I’m conflating indigeneity and climate climate change…..but let me just check back on the blog. No, definitely not. From the perspective I suggested, 20th and 21st Australian history looks to me to be dominated by the forces that brought about both indigenous dispossession and ecological devastation. Those forces could be described in various ways (cf Jane GW’s post) but it seems to me that dispossession and climate change will continue to shape Australian life in the next 100 years too. I have no idea what the solutions are to the most likely traumatic years that lie before us, though of course I have personal responses and thinking which are of no moment here. What I’m trying to ask is how is it then possible to write in the shadow of collapsing ecologies and the continued destruction of indigenous culture? I am not saying it’s not possible to write under those conditions, I’m asking what that writing could look like, and what that would mean for a writer’s thinking and for his or her capacity for reverie.

    One possible reason, I think, that Australian writing is generally so conservative, is not just the domination of the media by a few corporate players, the control that booksellers have over distribution, and publishers single-minded pursuit of what’s profitable and marketable – though of course these are very significant problems – but the fact that we have not yet learned how to write under the conditions I’m sketching out. How then can we do this? I doubt very much whether I’m up to it myself, but perhaps a few writers, such as Alexis Wright for example, might be able to show us. I don’t know for sure. On of the difficulties is having a forum to talk about this sort of stuff, because in writing under the shadow of apocalyptic events we will have to do something we have never done before. And it will require not just a different reverie but a different kind of talk too.

  11. Two things it makes me think of:

    First is a book by Timothy Morton, a romantic scholar whom I first came across when I was looking into notions of ambience — — “Ecology WITHOUT Nature: rethinking environmental aesthetics (2007). The point seems to be (and I haven’t got a copy yet, just reading the pages google books lets me) that the only way to get out of our poor relation with nature is to get away from thinking about nature at all, because in however we think about it, to invoke nature is to invoke an other that is at distance from us. The othering of land (an ‘environmental’ issue) is probably of the same logic as the othering of peoples (an ‘indigenous’/’colonial’ issue).

    Secondly, and its related to ambience and removing the distant other is that I have started thinking about inside-outside, and how the inside-outside dynamic fits into human history and civilization. Inside-outside logic seems to be particularly human (caves, and orifices, which also belong to the plant and animal kingdom, are not really inside-outside entities, until you approach them from a stance in which inside is a normal thing. Ie, when we build tents and houses, then we understand caves as insides). Inside-outside comes with built environment, clothing, fencing, city-states, possession rights and other survival and civilization procedures and thus it seems like a necessary part of human development, for all the haves and have nots it seems to produce. The distanced other is always on the outside. So maybe one way of getting rid of the distanced other is to get rid of inside-outsides. Hence, a provocation that, who knows, could even be a life project: to live without insides and outsides. Arakawa & Gins aims to live as if they will never die (, why not then get rid of inside-outside (which also might somehow get rid of death too).

  12. Hi Luke
    Thanks for this in depth comment. As I read you, I think my understanding, and my response, is basically as follows (as I wrote somewhere else):”We are not just in the world, or even on it, but we are of it.” I think the duality you mention is a serious issue. However, the problem, as I see it anyway, is that we have almost no way of thinking or framing about its flipside, a kind of deep interdependence. Its a real difficulty because we have had a couple of thousand years or more of a kind of Enlightenment thinking and its basically wired into our lives. What you are saying could be read as a kind of denial of the Other, which I don’t think you are doing at all. I think its entirely possible to co-construct an understanding of a kind of interdependence without denying the otherness of the Other by saying ‘we are all the same’. We are, on one level all the same. And on another very different. There’s too much in this to address in a blog. Blogs are just fragments and extremely ephemeral and instantly forgotten. There’s a good essay that might address some of the things you are raising by Alexis Wright (mentioned in other blog comments) at

  13. Fascinating Luke, I like your first point v much. Agree with what you say Morton says and I’ll be checking his book out, so thanks for that. I feel it acutely, the ‘othering’ of everything that is not ‘I’, even bits of ourselves we other.

    As for your second point about inside/outside – also interesting esp in light of 20C physics. Wondering where it leaves my skin.

    And really interesting your last two responses Stephen. I agree that we have almost no way of thinking outside the duality in which our thinking has been entrenched for millennia. I’ve been looking for a way around it for some time – physics, metaphysics, mysticism.

    Would love to read the Alexis Wright piece but the link doesn’t work – not from here anyway.

  14. The Alexis Wright link that works for me is:
    (the .pdf needs to be lowercase, it seems)

    Stephen, yes things are hard-wired. If inside-outside is a product of built environment and tools as much as ideas and ideology, then the duality is hardware-d as well. So any movement out of this would be a question of making new hardware (design, art, engineering etc) and not just new thinking (philosophy, theory, ideas etc); of course, such things re inter-twined.

    AS for writing under the apocalypse of our time – could this firstly mean to write with an intimate awareness of the big problems (say, the problems of the distanced other). before, and also, then writing in some other (non-distanced other) mode?

    Yep, it might seem like I am trying to get rid of the other. I suppose it is the distanced other that is suspect (and ‘I’ am suspect too, as a converse of the distanced other). But what of the intimate other? That might be interdependence-with-the-other. But Ecology Without Nature might also mean Caring Without Others. A crazy thought, hard to imagine.

  15. Oh, and another thing, Morton might say ‘ambience’ is the way into thinking/doing the flipside of the inside-outside duality.

    And I think one way of saying this might be: shift from inside-outside to side-by-side.

  16. Of course we can’t get new hardware without new thinking, or perhaps being. Again its difficult to get a handle on this, on what it might look like. History after all is littered with casualties of new thinking. Its possible that in these weird and weirdly apocalyptic times that we might have to make it up as we go along, and that whatever could happen in artistic creation might be a help there. I have been reading Christopher Bollas’ “Being a Character: psychoanalysis and self-experience” in which he talks about the conversion from trauma to what he calls ‘genera’, ie: a state of some kind free movement, some reverie, some reciprocity. Trauma is repetitive and a closed loop, and traumatic thinking is endemic in our culture I think, and traumatic attempts to cure the trauma usually re-inflict the trauma, that is the symptoms of the trauma are attempts at self-cure, just not very good ones. Trauma is terribly isolating, and having worked for a long time with young children and trauma, everytime I read a newspaper it seems full of traumatised people (you know, the ones we elect to run the place) rabbiting on and finding ways to reproduce their traumatic interiors.Which is all a long-winded way of saying that a shift to ‘side-by-side’ could be a very dangerous thing for linear and traumatic thinking. You’ll have to talk to me more about ‘ambience’ Luke. (well you don’t have to, but I’d find it helpful)

  17. Well… by way of long introduction, you could read at look at my PhD, “Approaching the Ambient: creative practice and the ambient mode of being” which I completed a few years ago.

    The idea of “not inside/outside but side/by/side” was something that actually dawned on me sometime after finishing this research project, but I think it was the underlying project of the research — pity this ‘aha’ moment didn’t happen sooner as my PhD text might have been much more to the point, but maybe I needed to clear the path a lot, and I was just learning to write in long-form…

    Since then I had dropped the ambience project for a while (doing other sorts of research and exploring other options of art making) but picked it up recently as I’m editing the ‘ambient’ issue of the M/C Journal (online journal of media and culture) to come out in May.

    Which means I’m not sure there’s too much more to say at this stage. One thing is that the move into ambience might be a move away from foreground/background or centre/periphery, or as I suggested inside/outside. If the foreground-centre-inside is dominant (almost by definition), then the sequence of moves to ambient could be this:
    * acknowledge this dominance (de-naturalise the norms),
    * then focus on or give attention or credence to the background-periphery-outside (invert the relations),
    * then feel free to move between and float about both foreground-centre-inside and background-periphery-outside (porous ambivalence and ambiguity),
    * then finally the move is to dissolve these very distinctions (shift right into ambience).

    A lot of deconstruction, political critique and activism might be able to be placed within this spectrum of possibilities. (eg, cultural studies as valorising ‘low culture’ at the express contra-distinction to ‘high culture’, or happy to mix up and move between low and high, or finally moving to some other understanding of culture not predicated on the high/low thing at all).

    Again, how to do this move into ambience is hard to imagine. In the PhD I mashed up the approaches of John Cage and minimalist emptying, the Situationists’ drifting, and serialism using some re-purpose ideas of Heidegger, to show how it might work in my, and other, visual and sonic installation practices.

    Anymore on ambience and ambient being would need an open, experimental dialogue, as these ideas are just seedlings for me.

  18. Ok Luke, I’m with you now. Thanks for the explication, that’s very helpful. I wasn’t hoping for a PhD, more like 25-words-or-less, or a quote from Brian Eno. Bloggers have small brains. The offspring of John Cage and Martin Heidegger is probably a baby worth playing with. When I think of ambience I also think of ‘ambivalence’, in all its ambivalent meaning, and kind of neither-one-nor-the-other, but a kind of both-and-neither as well. This doesn’t presuppose a taking of positions, or an engaging in argument, but an investigation of an identity that’s not quite so reified, so self-existent.

  19. the moment of play, the movement of the nomad, the slope of smooth space, the here and there of menhirs.

    I looked at the Nimbin Rocks at google images from different angle. They are so like over-sized menhirs – the upright rocks that dot various landscapes in quasi-spaced-out arrangements in Europe… Funny that: I’ve been thinking about stone henge and menhirs as a kind of architecture that is side by side rather than inside outside (along the circularity of Stonehenge moves towards an inside). Imagine a house, or hotel, or hospital, or homestead, as a series of different shaped menhirs — shelves, sides, slopes, but no insides — kind of like how skateboarders use the city.

  20. Nice image re the skateboarders. I may well steal it. And the menhirs too. I think of graffiti in the same way. I am very interested in liminal spaces and images. A friend of mine who has spent decades in Asia, remarked that the rock on the right in the image I used in the blog, taken from my verandah, (and actually the middle of three formations) looks exactly like a stupa. Which is also a liminal space. And when I think of the Rocks as a graveyard, where the Clever Men were buried, a graveyard is also a liminal space, but central to our existence, if you like.

  21. The skateboarding idea is from my reading of Iain Borden, an architect and skateboarder – you can tell; he writes from an embodied, you-have-to-be-there kind of way: his book “Skateboarding, space and the city: architecture and the body” (2001) and his article , “A Performative Critique of the City: the Urban Practice of Skateboarding” (but no longer online it seems). And add Parkour to skateboarding as the body-only version. And the situationist drift/derive and detour/visually intervene/graffiti — there’s this drunkard French thing post 1968 Guy Debord style (and Parkour is its martial arts descendant) and then there’s this American thing (Westcoast surfing morphs into skateboarding via empty swimming pools, and Philadelphia then New York wild-side graffiti). Unfortunately my skateboarding section of my PHD got cut before submission, but I’ll raise it if you like.

    Funny that about cemeteries with head stones, how this is a getting out of inside-outside at death. And the Hindu version of temples (as I saw them in Bali) is very much like this to, except they also put a wall around all the edifices, but not with the street corner variety.

    One of course can’t steal side-by-side stuff (since inside-outside is what creates mine and yours); one can only just pass it on.

  22. If you have the Borden article that’s no longer online, I would be very interested to see it. And thanks so much for your last sentence: it sums up what I have been trying to say and think but not succeeding, very nicely. Pass it on.

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