It was where all the hippies used to go, in the late 70s and into the 80s. Ma, sixteen and free. Ma, twenty-one, with me. There’s a photograph of me eating sand on that beach, not more than one, staring quizzically down the camera.
Descending towards the beach 38 years later, Dad told me a story of the former NASA scientist John Lilly who took LSD and spent the rest of his life exploring consciousness, including attempts at human-dolphin communication. Apparently Lilly, or a friend of his, built a stone house at the end of Black Stump Beach. Until the local council bulldozed it all the hippies hung out there, the lot of them coming down from the mountains near Nimbin in an old red Bedford truck. Naked in the sun, full of energy and a belief that they were shifting the dominant paradigm.
It’s a nice catchphrase. These days the hippies aren’t so hopeful. There’s still the energy, but the hope has changed. They’re asking more confronting questions. They’re looking to exist in the best ways they can, but which face the reality that the changes they thought possible didn’t eventuate. The reality that the dominant paradigm continues to dominate. They’re asking, now that hope and confidence are insufficient to the task at hand, how do we live with integrity?
I spent two mostly silent weeks with those folks this November, suffering and creating space for insights to arise, as you do at a meditation retreat. There were younger folks like me there, but most were the hippies who years ago swam naked at Black Stump Beach. Many of them, my parents included, had fought to preserve what became Nightcap National Park. Back then they won, it was one of Australia’s first successful forest blockades. That forest is beautiful. Ancient Gondwana seed forests, home to innumerable songbirds, waterfalls, swimming holes. It’s where I grew up.
My memories are of mud, flooded creeks, mustiness, rain, damp, watery adventure. In November it was dry, brittle, stressed, trees dying, smoke drenched. It smelt faintly of death. During walking meditation, slowly approaching a rain gauge, a cruel joke of a contraption in a drought, I saw a frog on the parched dry grass. Sunken, dehydrated, dead. Walking down the waterless creek, the green taro plants were still thrusting up from the bone-dry, rock-strewn bed. There, where once water pooled and evaporated, a dried eel lay. Not decomposed, dried. Preserved without moisture.
Silent retreats come in all shapes and sizes, but most have space for some discussion with the teachers. With twenty to thirty people sitting straight backed, the teacher invites questions, or inquiry, on anything. People have often been sitting with their own minds for days, so the discussions ran deep. The retreat had been scheduled at a centre in the forest near Nightcap National Park, the same place the hippies saved from loggers in 1979. But now, 40 years later, the forests they saved were burning, so the retreat moved to a safer location. The fires were caused by crippling drought. The drought was caused by climate change. Climate change was caused by the dominant paradigm.
For many on the retreat, the previous month meant day-in-day-out fire-fighting to protect the forest and their homes. Homes nestled deep in rainforest which shouldn’t burn, but does. Creeping through bone-dry leaf litter, fire encircles and fells rainforest trees that don’t regenerate like eucalypts do. Once those forests burn they are changed forever. As dense smoke drifted over us at the retreat centre, obscuring the sun, it was the people who had been fighting to save their homes and the forest they loved that brought the most confronting questions.
The path down to Black Stump Beach turns into a gentle climb. As you get closer to the ocean, past steep cliffs falling to the water, the beach reveals itself. It’s the kind of beach that induces you to point at it. It would be happy on film. Important stories could be told there. Characters could fall in love, make life-changing decisions, and die tragic deaths.
The wind blew gently onshore. Looking out to sea through the glinting sunlight I shouted, ‘whale!’ Then I wasn’t sure. That was a strange place for a whale, what sort of whale swims north at the start of summer, in northern NSW? But I’d just had my eyes tested, they were in good shape, so maybe there was a whale? And then there it was again, huge! And there were dolphins! And birds diving. The sea surface bubbling with fish. And then the whale, again, huge, hunting! Swimming like a dolphin, massively out-sizing them. The surge of white-wash around the whale as it hunted was spectacular. It felt holy, glimpsing this thing so unexpectedly, at this beach, after meditating for days in devastatingly dry country that felt set to spark alight.
For a moment Dad thought it was a humpback, but that was no humpback. Humpbacks don’t hunt like that, and they don’t have fins like that. Then maybe an orca, but its fin was too small… orcas have huge dorsal fins, right? And it looked bigger than a killer whale would be, it was big! A false killer whale? No, they’re too small. I researched beaked whales, which look like giant dolphins, and for a moment I thought I’d found it with Arnoux’s Beaked Whale, but no, they live in icy waters further south. We’ve asked friends who might know, but no luck. Maybe it was an unusually big orca, with a disproportionately small fin?
When we reached the beach, deserted but for a couple using a driftwood creation for shade, Ma stripped naked and jumped in the ocean, perhaps reliving memories of forty years ago. Dad and I didn’t join her in her joyful ode to youth, but as we swam, the whale, dolphins, and birds continued their hunt out to sea.
I shared what I wrote above with my parents. Mum told me that it was moving, funny, that the truck was a red Bedford, and that I should check my grammar. I’ve dutifully made those changes. Dad shared this:
Regarding the optimism of early hippies I can only speak for myself. I grew up with an acute awareness of nuclear destruction. I often had dreams of nuclear holocaust. As a teenager I really didn’t think I would make it to 30. Or should I say, I didn’t think nuclear war could be avoided. I wasn’t consistently depressed about this, but it had an impact. Combined with the Vietnam war and listening to Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed and various authors of an existential bent, plus the Bhagavad Gita and so on, I moved to a practical approach to living with apocalyptic scenarios. Do I feel less optimistic than I did at the time of the forest campaigns? I don’t think so. And of course I wish things were different but… as Leonard’s birds sang, “don’t dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be”. And none of the above is in any way to get you to modify what you have written, but for your interest. Love Dad.
But it does modify what I’ve written, and it clarifies why I wanted to write it. It clarifies that the naive, linear belief that things get better over time, the confident hopefulness I attributed to the hippies, was actually in me. It’s me who grew up thinking we were moving towards a better future. It was me who saw human rights and democratic institutions, and what I understood as justice as inevitable. And it’s me who is working out how to meaningfully reframe motivation, hope, dedication, and action in a world that is not, and never was, moving linearly towards justice.
It clarifies another thing as well. Sometimes the insights younger generations think uniquely theirs, aren’t. Until recently I thought that a deep consciousness of ‘privilege’ was a relatively new critique. But at my Nan’s funeral at the end of last year, my Mum read something that her Mother, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, wrote many years ago, “I am deeply conscious that the dispossession of the Aboriginal people has enabled me to have the advantages and privileges that I have had.” An unflinching sentence.
She didn’t use the word intersectionality, but her reflection on the role privilege had in her agency is comparable to many reflections on the term. Others have been here before. We are not better or more progressive or smarter than our forebears. We grapple with similar challenges in different contexts. My Dad lived beyond 30, nuclear holocaust has not yet happened. My Nan had a deep awareness of her privilege its cost. Moments in the past have been as catastrophically bleak as our own, and yet things have shifted.
Christopher Titmus, who led that meditation retreat in November, spoke about truth. There can be truth in a poem, in fiction or non-fiction, in a brief conversation – wherever you connect with it. This, from Rebecca Solnit early in this new year of 2020:
I believe that resistance, that standing on principle, that engaging with trouble, is good for the soul, a way to connect, a way to be powerful.
As we move into a year in which it is critical that we resist, organize, and build like we never have before, this is true to me. It captures a basis for motivation, dedication, and commitment to action on the climate crisis that feels important, beautiful, and true.