How Aboriginal perspectives can shape new landscapes

The City of Melbourne’s Canopy Green Roof Forum is a quarterly discussion that brings people together to share information and ideas for greening our cities. In November, CAUL-Hub Researcher and Barkandji Woman Zena Cumpston spoke about the opportunities to intertwine Aboriginal knowledge and practice into green urban design. Here is what Zena had to say:

I begin today by acknowledging that in this part of the City of Melbourne we are on Wurundjeri Country. I would also like to acknowledge the Boonwurrung peoples who are Traditional Owners of many other parts of greater Melbourne. This land was never ceded – never sold, swapped or given.

Thanks to Robyn for inviting me tonight and to everyone here for coming. I want to especially acknowledge my many friends who have come to support me and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples present.

This Canopy event seeks to explore how Australia will adapt to contemporary forms of greening and also recognise and appreciate the Aboriginal knowledge of Caring for Country and apply it to our landscapes. I want to start by sharing some of my thoughts about our relationship to Country and how this can inform potential paths forward as we work to address the environmental crisis we are in the midst of. I want to touch briefly on the multiple benefits of forefronting First Peoples narratives in urban areas and I will finish off tonight by dreaming big about all of us, together.

When it comes to strategies of environmental management in Australia, the voices and aspirations which have been largely missing, both historically and contemporaneously, are those of Australia’s First Peoples. To bring these voices into the conversation would be, arguably, the most powerful disruption to the many and varied processes and dominant modes of thinking which have led us to the environmental crisis we now seek to remedy. To value and foreground First Peoples’ ecological knowledge would be to finally harness the resources flowing from thousands of generations of careful custodianship. We need a dramatic shift in the way we view Country and our relationship to Country to address the vast ecological problems we face.

First Peoples view Country as kin to be looked after and actively loved. Australia’s First Peoples have been developing complex technologies, practicing aquaculture, making bread, farming and caring for Country for many millennia. We have been nurturing and peacefully interacting with our land longer than any other living and continuous culture in the world.

Why would peoples who have thousands of generations of ecological knowledge informing custodianship and care for Country at the core of all of their interactions be seen as actors to merely inform ecological strategies . Why aren’t we leading them?

We as First Peoples have a relationship with Country that is holistic, healthy, loving, reciprocal and engaged. This kincentric relationship embeds our obligations of custodianship, a realm which is often lacking within non-Indigenous views of Country which, instead of being seen as kin, to be cared for respected and nurtured, is seen as a resource to be exploited and controlled. How do we get non-Indigenous Australia to move towards that way of knowing that enacts the custodianship and care that is needed to forge a path forward in our challenging times ?

First Peoples ecological knowledge continues to be positioned as fragmentary, and is too often marginalised and trivialised. Agricultural and cultural practices associated with indigenous plants and foods have been largely neglected (at best) or ignored. Uncle Bruce Pascoe asks whether there is a bigger story in need of interrogation:

‘We could reach our carbon emission targets easily by growing these plants. So why don’t we? Are we that paranoid about Aboriginal claims to the land that we can’t acknowledge the plants tested and domesticated over a longer period than anywhere else on earth?’[1]

Our plants, Australian plants, are the most sustainable and nutrient-rich[2] crops which can be grown, requiring little water and having no need for fertilisers.[3] The ecological knowledge and the agricultural and cultural practices associated with our indigenous plants and foods have been largely subsumed by the machine of colonisation which continues its violence when First Peoples cannot see their plants, tell the stories embedded within them, pass these stories to the next generations and enjoy the health benefits of consuming and being near them.[4]

When our plants are reinstated within the environments they have thrived in over deep time cultural stories are reactivated. The opening up of cultural narratives invites all peoples to learn more of Country they call home. The opening of the narratives and perspectives of First Peoples may be a conduit through which the wider public can feel a sense of knowing and belonging which enables them to more meaningfully embrace their role as a custodian, to begin to intimately know Country, to love Country in a way that can heal and protect it.[5] Reinstating Indigenous plants and ecologies can be seen as a necessary act of reparation. Reparation to our peoples who have had so much ripped from them and also reparation for Country which needs to be healed through reinstating what belongs and has belonged over many millennia.

It would also provide a way of improving the psychological wellbeing of peoples whose histories, knowledges, languages and landscapes have been actively erased by the relentless machine of colonisation. Being near our plants, being able to see them and use them is important for First Peoples. All of our plants have multiple uses, benefits and cultural narratives which bolster our identity and connections but also invite others to learn more about our complex knowledge systems and land management practices.

This reinstatement of landscapes and ecologies may seem a daunting challenge when we are speaking of urban environments, but I see this is a new horizon which has tremendous potential if we can take a holistic approach.

‘New’ landscapes

The City of Melbourne’s Green Our City Strategic Action Plan highlights the multiple benefits of finding new ways to harness roof spaces in the municipality of Melbourne. These roof spaces make up a whopping 880 hectares of space. 328 hectares of this roof space has been shown to be unconstrained, that is, it would perhaps not be overly challenging to convert these roof spaces to green spaces. When we consider the entire City of Melbourne public open space network is only around 480 hectares in total area, the impact of adding another 328 hectares of green space has the potential to create transformative change.  This type of change would figuratively and literally be new horizons, and most pertinent to my thoughts here, ‘new’ landscapes.

When catastrophic interruption to our way of life happened in Australia around 200 years ago, one of the first things to go, to be irrevocably changed, was our landscapes. On my Country in western New South Wales, within 20 years of sheep being run, what was once lush Country, providing all that could be needed to sustain life for many, many, thousands of years had been converted to a compacted dust bowl.[6] And this is the story across almost every stretch of ‘settled’ Australia. Where the newcomers came they replaced our landscapes with their own. They modified, erased, went over and modified some more until there was little left to tell our stories, to attest our histories, our belonging, to demonstrate and practice our active custodianship, our careful science, our vast ecological knowledges. And today, in the urban areas of Australia which are all on Aboriginal Country, which all have mob who continue to speak for Country living within them, how much do you see around you which acknowledges Traditional Owners, Aboriginal knowledge systems and care for Country?

Across Australia there is very little acknowledgement in urban areas of the connection these places  have and have had to Aboriginal peoples over thousands of generations. Unceded sovereignty, histories, custodianship, and belonging have been actively erased, hidden and denied. But Aboriginal people are very much still here. I see the potential of these proposed ‘new landscapes’ to enact  opportunities to connect with Aboriginal ecological knowledge and the voracity that comes with our specificity of place which is embedded in all aspects of our custodianship. Forefronting our ways of knowing would invite all to learn more of Country they call home, to uncover hidden histories of place, to understand a holistic world view which sees all living things interconnected in a matrix grounded in custodianship. A holistic approach which would allow a more meaningful connection and understanding of place and the sense of custodianship that we as Aboriginal people have at the heart of all our interactions with Country. Our urban areas and the ecologies which exist within them predominantly speak to me of the silencing which has been so much a part of our shared history. Reinstating indigenous ecologies and reinvigorating Indigenous knowledge systems and narratives within an urban context is a big challenge but not an impossible one. This reinvigoration could act as a type of truth telling as posited in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Truth telling has the potential to begin the healing that could see our ecological knowledges and ways of knowing finally become a part of the dominant narrative and environmental strategies which will be of so much benefit to all Australians. The silencing, the erasure, the absence, the psychosis of denial is a sickness eroding us all.

Dreaming Big

And finally, I want to share my wildest dreams about how all of this could function holistically to provide the best-possible outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples because when you get it right for us you get it right for everyone, but this never works in reverse. This is a simple truth that evades most decision makers.

Dreaming may be perceived as self-indulgent but I see dreaming of what could be as a way of making things happen. When we dream we create an image, a blueprint, of what we want our future to be. We start to solidify ideas, to see what things could look like. These images, at first imagined,  have the potential to be brought into being.

When I think of the potential of hundreds of hectares of new landscapes in an urban area I dream of how this could combat the erasures of the past which have done all of us so much harm. I take a long bow and wonder what these new horizons could look like in terms of many of the aspirations of Aboriginal communities and the wider population.

Imagine if many of these new green spaces used predominantly indigenous plants which have deep connections to the place they are being planted? Plants which provide incredible benefit to animals and people but also hold multiple cultural stories that not only strengthen our connections and continuation but enlighten all? For example, what if these new green spaces told powerful stories of the waterways covered over beneath them, waterways, swamps, ponds and lakes which were once dotted all over the city of Melbourne ? Like the Bouverie Creek which was covered over but still runs under the University of Melbourne with eels sometimes still sighted passing through the drains of the Parkville campus.

The eels, with their ancient knowing and belonging, tell us that waterway is still there, still holding its stories, still a conduit for old, old ways, just hidden deep down under a relatively newly-inanimate landscape. It is stories like this, hidden stories of place which allow so much potential for us to connect. Histories and stories which allow all to look with new eyes at the built environment around us, to imagine the stories hidden within it that provide an opportunity to breathe new life and connection and perhaps a heightened sense of custodianship.

There are two more parts of this dreaming I have been doing. In my thoughts the 300+ hectares of new landscapes could not only provide the opportunity to restore and strengthen ecologies and tell powerful stories specific to place, they have the potential to address the specific health issues of Aboriginal communities in other ways. Imagine if these new landscapes also had the potential to address food sovereignty and security issues ? I could talk on this for hours but, just briefly, what if a large proportion of the new rooftop landscapes were dedicated to kangaroo grass or panicum, grown and processed for thousands and thousands of years by our mobs and eaten as highly nutritious bread? Indigenous grains are much more climate tolerant than the imported grain crops we currently grow and precariously heavily rely upon which rip the goodness from our soil, require too much water and fertilisers and are unlikely to survive the temperature fluctuations we will experience in the near future. Growing indigenous grain crops on rooftops would be a step towards smaller scale farming practices which we know are better for Country and ultimately better for people. Our agricultural industry also needs transformative change if we are to meet the challenges imminent and thinking of how these green roofs could work across multiple imperatives would be an excellent strategy. We as Aboriginal people always try to work within holistic frameworks, and interconnectedness is the essence of our ways of knowing and doing. And it is with this in mind that I introduce my final big dream for green spaces. What if a major part of the green roof revolution about to occur in Melbourne involved the employment of predominantly Aboriginal rangers to design, research, speak for and manage these ‘new landscapes’? It may perhaps seem strange to conceive of these green spaces as landscapes, as Country, but they certainly have the potential to be just this in their capacity to be embedded in culture, to provide and to be nurturing.  We as Aboriginal people have always changed and adapted to survive and thrive. I see no reason why these places in the sky can’t function in much the same way and be conceived in much the same way as Country on the ground.

We know that the health of Aboriginal people who work on Country is significantly better than those who do not. This would provide a rare opportunity for urban Aboriginal people to work on Country, to share and bolster cultural knowledge, maybe even, be able to finally access and eat the foods that have been a part of our culture forever, foods which have not been available to most of us for a long, long time.

Like many other aspects of Indigenous histories and culture, Aboriginal ecological knowledge is another area where, when the light of respect and acknowledgement is finally shone, people will say, ‘Why didn’t we know?’. It is not too late for nurturing Country and restoring a balance. The balance has been tipping the wrong way for only a little over 200 years, a drop in the ocean of the deep time of Indigenous peoples and culture.

When you respect, when you shine the light, knowledges which are widely considered fragmentary become extraordinary. Let us all go through a process of truth telling. Let us enact an awakening though this journey. Let us be together, in truth. Let us heal and heal Country. May our children never be impoverished as we have been. A tender knowing awaits us. Our ecological knowledge is a seed holding millennia of information waiting to be germinated, waiting for the light to be shone.

Image: Zena Cumpston with volunteers during the plant installation at The Living Pavilion – a temporary event space and living lab that featured a unique landscape of 40,000 plants native to the Kulin Nation. Photo by Isabel Kimpton

[1] SBS news article accessed 13-12-18 here;

[2] Williams, J & Chaliha, M (2016) Nutritional Characteristics and Bioactive Compounds in Australian Native Plants: A Review, in Australian Native Plants; cultivation and uses in the health and food industries (Ed Yasmina Sultanbawa & Fazal Sultanbawa), CRC Press, Florida, pp.223-225.

[3] Pascoe B (2014), Dark Emu Black Seeds: agriculture or accident? Magabala Books, Broome, p. 146.

[4] Gott B & Zola N (1992) Koorie Plants Koorie People; Traditional Aboriginal Food, Fibre and Healing Plants of Victoria, Koorie Heritage Trust, Melbourne, p.1

[5] Sentence N (2018), Wirrimbirra: How libraries and archives can support the cultural and ecological knowledge of First Nations people, accessed 21-11-18 here:

[6] Hope J, Lindsay R, (2010) The People of the Paroo River; Frederick Bonney’s Photographs, Dept of Environment, Climate Change and Water, Sydney NSW

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