Under the Asphalt

What lies under the concrete that paves the city streets? Emotions are tangled in the muscles and on the harried faces of passersby there.

What land lives below the asphalt of the roads we built? When the ground is stripped of plants and soil, has it become nothing but ground? What would it mean if that ground was alive?

We build our roads wider and wider, to accommodate the ever-increasing number of our vehicles. Our vehicles are fuelled by the sticky, foul-smelling residue of living organisms which died and rotted a million years ago.

The residue of that material is changing the atmosphere of the planet, as we roll our tyres over the asphalt. Mountains are hewn to pave the way.

Near where we stay, a road is being broadened, heading west through bushland. I asked one of my colleagues whether there was an improvement for her in the trip home after work, travelling on the widened road.

‘There was a hill on the way home. It’s gone now,’ she said. ‘So the sun, at that time of the afternoon, comes straight into your eyes. The sun used to be behind the hill. But now the hill’s gone. When you’re driving home, you can’t see. There’ll be more accidents.’

Road building in an urban environment. Photo by  Stefan Schweihofer .

Road building in an urban environment. Photo by Stefan Schweihofer.

Roads were once walking trails around mountains, along valleys, along the coasts. The walking trails were broadened into roads for carts. Part of Parramatta Road, a congested arterial road in Sydney’s west, was a trail from Burramattagal country at the head of the Parramatta river to the country of the Eora clan. People journeyed from the broad river of eels to the deep harbour.

Sydney was the site of perhaps six thousand Aboriginal artworks. Many were carvings in the sandstone it is built on. Most of these have been smashed, blasted or buried under construction.

I don’t want us to go back to living in caves and bough shelters. But acknowledgement and respect for the history of the ground we stand on is an essential element in a life of integrity.

Detail from a View of Parramatta c.1828 by colonial artist  Augustus Earle .

Detail from a View of Parramatta c.1828 by colonial artist Augustus Earle.

Car parks and sports fields were once ceremonial grounds, bora rings, gathering places for dance. At least the sports fields still bring people entertainment and a sense of ritual. Even if the rituals of the games the British brought seem a bit ridiculous. My wife Claudia calls rugby, where muscular, thick-necked men chase and deliver an ovoid ball, ‘the worship of the egg’. She is yet to understand the lethargic enjoyment of cricket.

In my last post, I wrote that my Aboriginal grandfather, Ben Walsh, who loved cricket, told me how he and other Goori people were put in trucks and removed from the Land in the early 1920’s.

I read through the carefully researched and husbanded documents of our Aboriginal family history last week. Sorting through the material, I realised that young Ben Walsh was not at the tribe’s land near Walcha when he was removed.

My Aunty, the eldest of Ben’s children, told me this several times over past decades. I didn’t integrate it. Isn’t it strange how I unconsciously refused to change my understanding from the story I interpreted on my grandfather’s knee?

I’ve had cause to reflect on what I was protecting in my psyche.

This is how I understand what happened, so far. Ben’s aunt Nellie’s children were traumatically stolen from her, Rabbit-Proof Fence style, in 1921. The police always came when the fathers were away at work, my uncle observed in his notes. The children were taken to a town on Wonnarua country, nearly two hundred kilometres away from Walcha. Nellie had to be near her four children. One was still a babe in arms. She moved away from Walcha, trying to regain her children.

Aboriginal children snatched from their mother. Still from the movie  Rabbit Proof Fence .

Aboriginal children snatched from their mother. Still from the movie Rabbit Proof Fence.

There was a mission made, called St Clair, near that town. Dispossessed and distressed Aboriginal people were permitted to camp there. The people built shelter and grew food, if not enough to feed themselves well. Alcohol had a grip on many of them. People subsisted. There were strong opinions in the town about the community.

After 1918 stricter rules were imposed. The mission was renamed Mount Olive. I expect that the biblical allusions in the names—St Clair, Mount of Olives—to suffering and martyrdom were not lost on Ben, who was highly literate and had life-long anger at the Church.

In 1923 the people were removed from the mission.

My grandfather was still able to go home to Walcha and put his feet on the land. Nana told me that his mother fiercely told him to do so when he went off the rails, once or twice. ‘He was better then, too,’ she said.

But the land he grew on, back at St Clair where he’d learned to throw a boomerang, is gone now, under a dam. The dam supplies water to the town, for agriculture and coal mining. It has been stocked with fish and people go there for holidays.

I know I listened to my Aunty when she told me that Ben’s removal had been from Mount Olive, not from Walcha. She told me when the land was drowned in the dam, too. Somehow, I wasn’t able to fully process it. I wasn’t ready to integrate the information. Perhaps there was a little girl inside me that kept wanting to see young Ben, still on our original land, grown strong from it. Perhaps Grandad gave me that impression to make me stronger.

I wanted to know about the continuity of the Dunghutti tribe. I didn’t want to know that the dispersion, the dispossession, the crying pain, began earlier, went so deep.

It’s important to allow ourselves the time and emotional energy to understand the roots of things.

There are connections between the roots of trees. They communicate to each other by chemotaxis. Chemotaxis is a biological process of movement stimulated by chemistry that scientists began exploring over the past hundred years or so. Communication between trees is a relatively new field.

There are connections between people, places and moments, too. We don’t understand the mechanisms of these connections yet. That does not make them any less real.

Intertwining roots at Loch Ness, Scotland. Photo by  grafik_zfk .

Intertwining roots at Loch Ness, Scotland. Photo by grafik_zfk.

Travel is a great way to explore connections and differences. And I do want to keep exploring. I could start by burning different fuel in my diesel 4WD. Small changes keep spirit strong, and do less harm to the planet, on the way to the big changes we need to make.

If the wisdom of the Aboriginal people is to be respected, if there’s anything to the Gaia hypothesis, our planet is a dynamic conscious being. What we call inorganic, non-living, in the natural world, has another dimension to it.

Beneath the concrete and the asphalt there remain the contours of the land: the hollow of a creek, the roots of a destroyed mountain. Perhaps the shimmering minerals, even the decayed organic material we fuel ourselves by, form part of the world’s body.

Chemicals being injected between layers of the rock to extract the gas of the rotted animals and vegetation, in hydraulic fracking, poison the groundwater. These and some other mining methods are causing an increase in earthquakes.

Changes to the atmosphere and the ground are creating devastating storms.

Increase in earthquakes is man-made.  US Geological Society  graphic.

Increase in earthquakes is man-made. US Geological Society graphic.

Maybe those people who live in denial of the reality of the planet’s distress are a little bit like me. They cannot believe that the desecration and damage could be so deep, so final, so destructive already. They distract themselves with smaller things and maintain the stories that they can emotionally carry.

People who don’t understand how a body could carry blocked trauma could never imagine that the planet might carry its hurt somehow, that rocks could respond to mistreatment. But anyone who has held a child while they sobbed out the shock of an injury understands intuitively how living creatures feel and respond.

Who hasn’t ever laughed awkwardly and inappropriately when nerves got the better of them? The body lets out feelings the mind is not allowing, through movement, emotion, sickness.

Sometime when I watch the news or feel myself to be barraged by marketing and propaganda, I am alienated. I feel a chasm of understanding around me.

I greet those I encounter there, in the canyon of an Earth newly broken.

Perhaps it’s not a chasm at all, but a place of shelter and the seeds of restoration.


Vibrant Autumn tree photo by Faye Cornish.