This piece is the result of a number of years of friendship between myself and Indigenous Ngarigo Senior Law Man Rod Mason, known also as Ibai Wumburra. It is based on notes taken with Rod’s consent over a number of years, and from an extended interview, recorded with his permission, after what are now termed the ‘mega-fires’ of eastern Australia in late 2019 and early 2020. Rod has expressed his approval of the result, and of how his words are represented here.
The friendship between Rod and me began when Rod came with a group of ecologists to visit my farm, Severn Park, which is in the Ngarigo nation’s ancient land in the lee of the Snowy Mountains. Rod subsequently ran a number of cultural burning workshops on Severn Park, and through that our friendship developed. After this I would occasionally drop in on Rod’s farm on the New South Wales coast, just a kilometre from Cobargo. This town would be one of those caught in the mega-fires after Christmas 2019, which destroyed half the town and killed three people.
Before the White invasion, Australia comprised around 500 Indigenous Nations, with over 250 distinct languages, each indivisibly married to its particular area of land or Country. Due to his grandparents’ familial, clan and totem relationships, Rod is strongly connected to, and responsible for, four Countries, which cover a wide area of Australia, from the central Australian deserts, to the Kimberleys in the north-west, to the top end of Arnhem Land and into western and north-western New South Wales.
Being a Senior Law Man, Rod is a leader in his community, trainer of initiates and upholder of his people’s stories and traditions, while also being a custodian of the Country, its sacred places, knowledge, religious ceremonies and cultural belongings.
Charles Massy, 2020
My name is Rod Mason or Ibai Wumburra. I am an elder and community leader. I was bred, trained and taught to be a local rainmaker or Jillagamberra of the Ngarigo people, known also as the Manaroo people, of south-eastern New South Wales, and I am a healer, trained by my grandfather. My totems are the Kaua (echidna) and Ibai (eagle-hawk), and I am of the Wolgal-Bemmergal clan.
In telling my story here, it’s important for the reader or listener to understand that the information I’m sharing has come down through my family. It’s what I’ve been taught by uncles, aunties, grandparents and so on. It’s neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’. It’s my family’s information.
To claim, as some do, that certain Indigenous information is ‘wrong’ ignores the traditional Indigenous approach to the ownership of stories, and is an affront to the generations who passed those stories on.
I hope this provides Indigenous and non-Indigenous people with an insight into how we see Country, and perhaps adds another dimension to their own personal land-management endeavours and their ‘care of Country’.
Our Country goes from the high Bogongs of the Tidbillagas, the upper peaks of the Snowy Mountains, from north of the Cobberas, the mountains in Victoria, and from the upper waters of the Indi, to Mount Kosciuszko, the sacred mountain, highest in Australia, mother of Bumangee, the Snowy River, and on which we should never tread. Mount Kosciusko, beyond the glacial Lake Cootapatamba where the eagles drink, mother to the Snowy River, one of the two places where my people’s spirits go when they die (the other being the big ice lake, Blue Lake).
Then further north to the great peak Jagungal, the Big Bogong, ‘Mother of the Waters’ and the five rivers – then east and down to Burrungubbagee, the foothills, and then Narrawallee, the big grass Country to the east on the Monaro high plains, ice-dreaming Country – then to Nallaga, the coastal range Country, to Wadbilliga, the escarpment, then Tidbinbilliga, and down to Wallaga, our Country on the coast.
The last of our people, we are only a few now, we live down here now, on the coast.
My people are the icemakers and rainmakers, underground water and cave people, keepers of the spirit world. We were ice-travellers who come out of the central and western desert Country in the big drought of the ice ages [c.25,000–15,000 years ago]. We are from the ice dreaming.
The most important thing is we remember who we are, where we’re from, our link to this Country, our links from one side of Australia to the other, our Tchulkpa [law, story and ceremony, told in song and holding the religious and cultural knowledge of Ngarigo society]. It’s like Europeans, they come to Australia from other countries in Europe; well us, we come from the other side of Australia. Our story’s already written there in the landscape, in the plants, the rivers, the creeks and the rocks, everything – it’s how we recorded our Tchulkpa.
It reminds us today that even though we’re this side of Australia, we came when the ice melted. We had no choice. All the animals were coming this way, so our family’s responsibilities was to follow the ice and the animals that come east; some followed the animals that went north, like the pigeon, Wobba, and all them other things, the stork, Jabiru, and them others that went back north where they come from. So I also have ancestral links to the Jabirus and them other fellas, our great ancestry. We’re linked to everything. And we can trace our family’s oral history back to the Homelands. It’s where we come from, and it’s in our genes. As Mum always said, no one can take that away from us. It’s in our genes.
The big ice-drought forced us out from our Homelands in the central and western desert, towards Lake Mungo or Muttaringi and across. We come through as a red wallaby or Marla, or the bronzewing pigeon or Gurrowool, him and the Burrawang fern and the grass tree [Rod’s people carried these totems as they moved Country. They link the human and supernatural worlds, and are an integral part of a person’s past and present identity, inherited at conception or birth, when the spirit of the unborn child announces its identity].
It’s all part of the storyline with us, the songline [songlines or dreaming tracks are the routes that were taken by the ancestral beings during a period known as The Dreaming, when ancestral beings performed heroic deeds, creating, moulding or enhancing key features of the landscape through ‘singing up’ the Country into life]. When that place, the central icelands, changed, it ran out of water ’cause melted and turned to salt. But everything, everything was there. Our Homelands were the central western desert, Warburton Ranges, right up to Lake Disappointment, that Country of the Pintubi people, and we’re all linked through that. The salt lakes are like blood from our ancestors. The salt we call Puntool.
Our ancestors didn’t have books, but we had good memory. We wrote our journey on the landscape and in the landscape, and even to this day we can read our story backwards from here – you know: the mountain Country, stony Country, sandy Country, rocky Country, and we’re home then, in our Homelands.
That journey out of the Homelands, those stories became songlines. We lined up with the stars, and the stars told us when it was time for song and dance. Now people call time, seasons, by names like ‘months’, things like that, but we had the stars up there when it was ceremony time. And the seasons, the warm change, the weather and that, we were part of that natural system. But we had a way with it, you know; it was just like the old lung fish, old Magandi – he can be buried deep in the mud, then come out when it rains, and outta the water too. So we’re more or less like him, we can live in both worlds. We can come out of the water for a little while – outta the caves, the caverns. We were underground people. Buried in the mud, rain wakes old Magandi up, he makes tracks to this area, or there, where he finds food, or he shelters; he leaves his droppings behind, people call it a mess, but those droppings turn into something for something else – people do the same thing.
We are ice-age travellers, we travelled through the ice age; no clothes. All we had was the three laws: wind, rain and fire. Country had to be fertile, otherwise it wouldn’t work. I chose, in my life, through my grandparents, to make Country. ’Cause Country never go away, it gave birth to us; Country never leaves us; Country is forever – so we are responsible for her. I’m therefore a Marminga, a man of Country.
People say ‘How do you make Country?’ Well, we light fire first, and we call the rain through the fire, and the wind blows what we need. And anywhere we see red dirt here in eastern Australia, that come from the old Country. We know the wind blew here for us to have ceremony. To put on our bodies that nice red dirt.
But dust storms today, that’s very bad management, poor, shouldn’t be like that. When that happened in the ice ages, everyone went into the caves, underground. We had our own filter systems, you know, we had mosses and all that, beautiful big mosses, sponges; that way you could lay on ’em and sleep on ’em, you know. We had hot- water springs underground. We had salt, our number one, Puntool, blood from our ancestors. Without that salt we’d be dead.
See, we got stories going way back to that time. Even earlier. There’s one old family story of how we walked across from Indonesia at low tide [when all the lands were connected], and because of that I have Makassan ancestry in me – had a DNA test. All that’s in our old Tchulkpa. We’ve got stories of the ice age, the animals that came, and the animals that went – animals that you never see no more. So we’re part of that extinction world.
We even got cultural memory, down the lower Snowy, of ambushing diprotodons, old Jummalung [giant wombats, about the size of a rhinoceros]. Around Buchan there. They had very old pathway traps. These big things, two, three times bigger than a cow, would fall down and then you got ’em, spears, stones, you know. Those diprotodons, 20,000 years and the rest. My cousin used to look after that Country, that story there. Buchan caves and all that. His grandfather used to look after ’em too when he was young. One of my old pops was born down that way there, near the Buchan caves – him and his twin brother.
Old Jummalung, they used to hunt us too – old Nanny used to say these big things would come outta the bush there and chase all the old grandparents – chase ’em to the rocks, and, ’cause the Jummalungs couldn’t climb, then they’d throw rocks and spears down at ’em.
We also got stories of giant goannas [lizards, larger than the Komodo dragon, long extinct] and others, stories of being chased by them – hear the bushes breaking and they’d take off. Warwagga – big goanna, scary. So you see, our stories go back thousands of years. We didn’t have years and calendars then, but by’n’by.
You just remember them three laws, wind, rain and fire, and what they’re capable of doing. And if we don’t accept and understand them and why they behave like they do, well, there’s trouble, ’cause we’ve got a spiritual or universal obligation for us as a species to nurture. ’Cause they give us wind, they give us cool on hot days, they give us rain on dry days, they give us warmth on cold days. Wind, rain, fire. It’s a part of our lifestyle. Need to be warm on a cold day, cool on a hot, so gotta respect them. And you make Country with fire. Very powerful.
The animals, if they had tongues, if they could speak our language, they would tell us that a lot of our language came from them things, that’s how we were given birthright to speak on behalf of all animals on this continent. So we know their language, we modified theirs for our Aboriginal language to an understandable system between ourselves, you know. But really, our language and everything else, our notions, come from the animals.
Much of that was lost when the Whites come.
All this means we’ve stopped looking after – making – Country. We’re not there now . . . no fire, no management, and it’s going backwards – and quick. But you can’t make Country without fire – that’s our powerful, special, but dangerous tool if you don’t know what you doing. There’s a lotta stories I can’t tell, including about fire. And I’m getting worried about our ceremonies now; we’re starting losing our ceremonial grounds through bad land management and that. ‘Have to move somewhere else’; but it doesn’t work. Might be too windy, might be too moist, or might be too hot, you know. Too hot, no water. Hardly any wind and cooling breezes, so yeah. Much of this is ’cause we don’t burn. So if you lose ceremonies you’re not doing things right by Country. Means you lose Country first, then all the directions and guidance information that goes with that is lost. So Country goes first, and as ones who distribute the information about these areas, the instructions, directions, that’s why we write these things on our Thuringa. The old people called it Thuringa, very sacred objects. A Thuringa is like our directions, instructions: how to behave, our family history, who we are and everything; or could be just one rock with designs on it, very old rock, or a wooden tablet with edges on it.
Back home in the old Country we put ’em in the shelves in the dreaming areas, Yappalini, up in the cliffs. We put ’em all there, but in the past someone’s come and took ’em. ‘What’s this? Wow, isn’t it beautiful.’ But it’s got story written on it, or design – that’s directions and instructions from the ice age to us, and someone’s stolen these Thuringa, the most sacred objects. Lucky for me my grandfather saved only two of our Thuringa, and I mightn’t even show anyone, you understand? Those Thuringa, that guidance, it came from the old culture, the original culture from before the ice ages. We’re the new culture – after the ice age. The old stuff came from out of the caves. The new knowledge is in the bush.
But while I’m a local rainmaker, it’s more than that. Yes, I teach and practise our burning, but in my culture I also come in from four ways – four distinct relationships, lineages, that connect me, wide, across the Country. I come from a long line of chiefs. Fortunate for me, I come in four ways. And that means I also have four ways, four responsibilities, four knowledges. Wind, rain, fire and ceremony.
See, you gotta realise, at the end of the ice age everything was twice the size. Good quality, good quantity, big, everywhere you went, everything was perfect. Untouched as it should be. With wind, rain and fire, our system was management, but now these days everything’s lesser in quantity, poorer in quality. That’s ecology in decline, but ah, our biggest problem is how we prove that. So again, we’ve been excluded from White man’s science. That’s a very powerful tool used against us. White man’s assumptions, his attitude – that’s why a lot of us keep away from them. We been told by our parents that we don’t deserve that type of treatment. How dare someone come along and ask ‘Who’re youse, and where’re you from?’ When we know who they are and where they’re from. So, who wears the biggest shoes? That’s why we’ve always been told, ‘Keep away from them White fellas! The Berimba will turn you into something you’re not.’
We still got stories of when them White fellas, the Berimba, arrived in our Country, Country we had managed for thousands of years. We still have stories down here on Wallaga, the coastal Country, of the day the giant pelican came. It was Captain Cook’s ship, all white sails, looked like a giant pelican slowly cruising up the coast, no effort, but giant. ‘Musta been made by Dimboola?’ they thought – that bloke, our creator, the All-Fatherer, who made all the birds up there on one of his campgrounds on the Monaro high plains, Bobundara there; where he gave them all different beaks, different legs. But this big white pelican, he turned out to be greedy, him and his giant beak and gullet for scooping everything up, and soon began to eat all the Country, fish, animals up – including us.
My grannies told me stories of the Berimba arriving on the Monaro. Of men on giant animals, horses, tins rattling on saddles; later that sound would send ’em to hide in the bush – and these white people on horses had long steel sticks. These would make a big boom, thunder-like, you know; a big bang, and smoke; flame would fly out of it, smoke out of the stick, sparks coming, all these things – and all they were was people and horses. They would run into the bush, and before you knew it everyone knew what it was, and tins rattling on horses – so before long it was a different world, you know.
There was massacres. We still know the sites. Can tell you the name of the police sergeant who led one, using government-issued shells. I can still show you those shells, and the bones. Then later come the blankets, infected with smallpox from Sydney, the Rocks there, and the poisoned waterholes, strychnine, and arsenic too, in the flour they doled out. Finally they sent my people into a concentration camp, there near Delegate, and later shipped ’em off to the coast, until they dumped ’em into Sydney, La Perouse there. Took ’em off Country. They died like flies, heartbroken, taken off Country.
And even before that the sheep and cattle had come. No time flat they ate the heart outta the Country. Eroded. She dried up, the spongy valleys, our herbaries, our pharmacies, our fruit orchards, our hunting nooks, butterfly gardens and crannies, our camps. All carefully managed. Didn’t understand it, and most important they didn’t know how to burn and care for Country. All my people gone, except a few of us come back and settled down the coast here.
My grandfather, our people, were the first original stockmen up in the Bogongs, the Snowy Mountains, from the 1840s, working for the White fellas. But for thousands of years my people, and many other tribes from both sides of the mountains, went up there in late spring for the moths, for Kori, and the feasts of Dubbul, the rich moth paste, and for finding wives and mating when they’d all got sleek and fat. After that, my dad and grandad became fencers for the White people, sorta ‘on Country’ [living on the land, and understanding its stories and religious context] but not on Country, you know? See this picture? That healthy man with initiation scars? That’s my forefather, a senior law man of the Ngarigo, born 1800 – Ibai Mullyan, also called Murray Jack ’cause he worked for old Murray over on the Indi or Murray River. They called him Murray’s Jacky. The photo’s taken at his camp, late 1880s or so, between Matong and Ironmungie, near Dalgety on the Snowy River there – Bumangee. He died at ninety-four. Looks like a young fella, eh?
But I grew up mainly in desert Country. That’s where I learned how to burn Country, the desert, and then down here, the coast and forest Country. And I learned how to burn from both my grandfathers and the other old men, and from my grandmothers.
We go into an area there, and say we start a fire up, well we know which way it burns – say from over to the hills, through the bottom of the creek, over to the bottom of the other hills; we know whether a woman or man has trained that fire; women, shrub fire; men’s fires different, full-barked trees. We have a different system there too: say a different wind, usually the first wind of the morning, in the cool.
There are little secrets when you’re taken out on Country and taught by elders, you know. How to watch a fire burn through an area; watch a wind swing around at a certain time of the day; and back-burn on itself. It will clean itself up and you don’t need anything. So it’s just patience and living with that thing, you know? Otherwise, do the wrong thing, and someone from our family or friends will be taken.
They’re the repercussions of what can happen if we interfere with a fire going through. And given what the Whites and new arrivals done, we have no choice now; we have to really remind ourselves of who we are and what we know about fire – not too many people want to learn direct from the source, because as Australia gets a little bit older there’s a community change, and, ah, it’s too fast, getting faster and faster, a quick way out, fast way out instead of a healthy way. Need to sit back on a rock or with someone or something from the past and understand, really have a look and really understand what that significant person is, that object is, because it’s exactly the same here as it is back in the Homelands.
Now you can’t be an all-rounder in my culture, unless you go through us; you prove to us you are an all-rounder: that you know how to make Country; you know how to call rain; how to make fire. In totally different Country, fire can behave differently, so yeah, you got to have made Country and know that Country, because you’re the one, and your offspring gonna be the ones looking after it. So, we know who we are, and through our grandparents, I assure you, we know what is right and what is wrong for this Country. My links go back there, up into that central desert Country; one to Warburton and up to the Kimberleys; one through Alice Springs and up to the top end; I spent time up there as a young fella; always been in contact with my ancestors back home there, through my grandparents.
That burning there, it’s very similar to down here. Just that this Country down here, cool Country, we have lomandra rushes, Moorarng, and back home, the old Country, we had the spinifex plants or Kiti. So, very similar, if not the same. That’s why Aboriginal use of plants right across the Country is either exactly the same, or very similar – in that sense, same as the European farming system.
So I started learning when I was a little toddler, two or three, something like that. They wrap you up, put you in the bushes; you smell the smoke; you know somethings going on there. Might get your leg burned, or forehead burned. That’s all right, that’s how it was. That was in New South Wales, on my grandfather’s Country, west of Coonamble. So all these cross-connections, you see, I’m related to half the Country. That’s why I’m lucky, I come in four ways through my grandfather: not too many Aboriginal people can do that.
So using fire, we make Country. We still make Country now. We go into a small swamp, burn about half a mile of it there, go back the next year there, all is brand new – you got things popping up you didn’t ever see. The first time done, it’s magic. Like at Lake Mungo before we went back to burn. Nothing there, just sand. But then we burned it and now you see all the wild flowers. We got wild-flower gardens growing under local gum trees they didn’t even know existed there and casuarina trees – which use to grow along the edge of the waterways. So everything was in its natural patterns: just need fire at the right time, charcoal, to spark up, some rain to come – just through fire.
I began learning too when ten, eleven, twelve in the long grass Country on the Monaro, in Nullica and in Narrawallee. I started burning near the camps; created nice places, nice soft ground there, charcoal in the ground there, you know, to keep it cool on a hot day. You can feel it, walking into it: ‘Jeez it’s cool here Pop!’ ‘Yeah, lie down and have a sleep, and go this way!’ Nice and cool on a hot day under trees. Like a big fridge. It was that charcoal, and moisture in the ground. And when a fire went through there, it was protected by the charcoal. You can’t burn through charcoal, you know that, eh?
You try and burn charcoal? Then you’re there forever. So that’s the little blanket we put down in our campgrounds – keep us cool on a hot day, warm on cool days. Like a thermal blanket. You only make it with fire, you know, and little stones, cool pebbles. See, we got fire stones; we got rain stones, all that stuff, like a lot of other cultures. But once you start moving all them, well they’re indicators, you know. Indicators. If you move ’em, well it’s more or less taking the guts out of an air conditioner.
We had our own air conditioners, our own fans – it’s just that all these things have eroded away through poor management, through exclusion – we weren’t allowed back to these areas. We understand air currents, pressure, breezes. My Nanny used to pick up a little feather, just like that, and on its own it would just fly up. We sit there, lying down and watch it. How’d she know that? She’d know exactly where to put that feather. Just let her go, and it would spin around on its own – go up and down; up and down. See, we was taught things there: patience; observation; understanding. That’s all it is. The scientists explain things now, you know the switchover in the late afternoon, the evening, with oxygen, carbon dioxide, plants breathing it in and out. Well, we knew that for thousands of years, and that switch point was when we often burned. So that’s how we knew when was the right time. You know, the original burning patterns are still in the ground. We need to burn open ground again, we need charcoal. She’s a filter; helps water quality, and we know the different charcoals from gums to ti-tree shrubs which give a finer ash. We know how to burn to nourish and create our fruit orchards for pigeons, our herb gardens, yam gardens, our ferneries, our wild-flower havens for butterflies, wattle thickets for possums and tucker for [marsupial] gliders.
Every animal has a natural instinct. This is part of our natural instinct system. Some people might call it trial and error, some people call it mentors. We were just good observers and listeners – that’s how it all starts, by observation. Don’t be faster than the other fella, listen to him. Patience very important too, healthy.
Part of the problem too is we lost all the little fellas in the grasslands and forests – the bandicoots, the woylies, the bettongs, the bilbies, pottoroos, the desert hopping mouse. Their favourite tucker was mushrooms, fungus. They spread ’em round, and fungus kept the Country moist. Those little fellas, it was their favourite tucker, but we’ve lost ’em nearly all – the sheep, cattle destroyed the Country, and the plough drained it, turned it into desert some places, and the foxes and cats destroyed ’em – still do, especially after these fires. That fungus, nearly all gone now. So the Country dried, and dry Country, well, she burns more and hotter – lotta damage. Yeah, that’s a big part of it.
You see, it’s just like a wet piece of carpet drying out, taking the fungus away. Becomes that dry that part eventually dies, and one day you’ll walk over it and put a tear in it. That’s what’s happening. Like old newspaper. Spill your tea on it, and it turns brown, yellow, and one day it rips. That’s what’s happening to the Country. That’s why these fires were so bad. Most of it – the drying – is unintentional, because of lifestyles, you know, and lack of listening, learning and understanding. Needs patience, eh? So that’s what happens when you’re impatient. And that’s why we say: listen to us and learn from us, you know. It all starts there . . . our personal life experience is critical.
When I was first given responsibility to burn Country on me own, well, nothing went wrong. You see, I had the best trainers. My first time alone was up at Tuross River there, in the old camps, at Buralla, Tuross Falls there, me and my old man used to camp. There was blackberries growing there in among the bush-tucker gardens. I learned to burn the blackberry, thought it was great. Was about six or seven. Sort of had my little fire-stock there. He told me: ‘Go on up and burn that blackberry there.’ I knew straight away what to burn. You go up there now, and there’s no blackberries, but a lot of old bush-tucker gardens, you know.
But time’s running out now. If we don’t come up with something we can do together, instead of one leaving the other behind, then it’s never gonna work. This place’ll turn into more desert. And this summer was a sign of what will happen: drought, then big fires.
This summer here, this year, she’s been a big warning, see. In our culture, our stories, we talk about the big fire tornadoes, the Warrawaddys.