Boorna Waanginy

Ah, Perth, how you confound all expectations and surprise us – not just one or two of us, but thousands of us, your citizens, your old and young, your new arrivals and your home grown.

Above your bright skyline where the neon of commerce and mining glow cruelly against the night sky, above where your humble ferries ply a bright-lit trade against river darkness, where your once-contested bridge sweeps arcs of headlights across the Swan, where your sea of suburban light reaches out to darkened hills – above it all as a yellow moon breaks free of clotted clouds, new light is created and thousands of us walk beneath its thrall in many footed darkness among strangers and among friends.

We were meant to pass through six seasons experiencing it from within, but instead hung back to watch it from afar – reptiles scamper up the foremost eucalypts; giant numbats meet and play against the trunks. The music changes, and fire comes, red and orange and crackling-quick. (It’s for this I stand among the trees later, trying to imagine the reality of these sounds outside the safety of art.)

I love the rain most, bright and loud and reminiscent of the sound of raindrops on hard baked ground; then cracking thunder and lightning illuminating the stately gums. Later, the black cockatoos wheel – this, too, is impressive not only from afar as on a stage, but from within: I look up and the dark shapes pass across the canopy above my head.

These are the sounds of my childhood, of the bush that I know and that I imagine – louder and nearer to one another than ever. But here the seasons are narrated by Kim Scott, and there are six: Makuru, Djilba, Kambarang, Birak, Bunuru and Djeran. This is Nyoongar Boodja, Nyoongar land, and these seasons mean more than any European sequence of seasons ever could.

Beyond the six seasons a familiar voice, with the intonation of a practiced storyteller: Noel Nannup‘s voice amplified alongside that of conservation biologist Stephen Hopper, acknowledging the ancient nature of the land, the plants and animals that live here, and the depth of Nyoongar connection to it. Here, the first sense of the message that this path through Kings Park brings to us all: that what has taken aeons to grow and develop can be lost in the blink of an eye.

And it’s our eye that’s blinking, our time in which a mass extinction is unfolding, our watch upon which the ecosystems of the South West are being destroyed.

As people walk through the changing lightscape, or sit on the grass to watch and listen and wait for each cycle to reveal itself, the stories shift: from the Nyoongar story of Jindalee and the Spirit Children, creating the milky way and sending the colours of the rainbow to earth to daub the birds and the flowers; to the harsh sound of radio clips, combining the statistics of extinction and species loss that we hear on the news into one devastating string of voices.

As the scale of species loss is revealed, the brightly lit canvasses of the trees are turned out, one by one, the foliage melding into the darkness beyond. The meaning is clear.

Onwards, down a narrower tree-lined avenue where smoky blues illuminate us, hundreds of us, walking into the twilight past specimens from this land. Leaves and flowers, and things that are perhaps animals, swing in jars above us, lit like specimens in formaldehyde. They are just a little too far away to see clearly. Too far away to grasp, slipping away like the species they represent.

The most solid thing I can pin my thoughts to in this kaleidoscope of impressions, sound, colour and light, are the words visible on one row of jars: Beeliar Wetlands, January 2017.

Collected from the Beeliar. It is not the only message that pins Boorna Waanginy to the timely, specific instance of destruction that we witness daily: at the final point of the journey, as people appear in a giant projection to talk about the totems they have adopted, there is one that draws a cheer and a clap.

Kate Kelly, ever so brief and succinct: my totem is the black cockatoo, and I commit to saving the Beeliar Wetlands.

Across the seeds of change, sown as lanterns in great arcs on the sloping hillside, the voices of the young and old speak of their totem. I remember Noel Nannup speaking, around the fire at Replants in Fremantle, of how it is each person’s responsibility to know everything there is to know about their totem. Every little thing. I remember this in his storyteller’s voice, and so the message of hope of Boorna Waanginy’s finale rings true. All these people have adopted a totem, whether they are Nyoongar or not, because with a totem comes responsibility to protect. With this, perhaps we might all play a hand in trying to turn the tide.

And so the tide of people turn away from the extinctions and the hope, into the darkness of Kings Park. In the dark we meet others we know, friends among the tens of thousands of strangers that walk here this night. All around us are those who have walked with us, on Nyoongar Boodja, through this journey of sound and light.

To read more on the audacity of Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak and for some stunning photos, see The Guardian.

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