“We are blessed to have you come in our circle and walk with us.” Sib stood on the veranda of her home and spoke to us with the kind of gentleness that you encounter rarely in a lifetime. She is a short woman in her early sixties with her graying hair buzzed close to her head and the pale brown skin that marks her as half-caste—part white and part Aboriginal Australian. She and her older cousin, Lawrence, had invited our group of twenty-nine American college students to their home one afternoon in October to welcome us to their country.
The late Australian spring brought sunshine and a relaxing breeze, soft green leaves, the purple bloom of the Jacaranda trees, and the fiery flowers of the Flame Tree. According to contemporary geography, we inhabited a place in the rainforest near Yungaburra, a small town on the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland. But specifically, we were living in Yidinji Country, and Sib and Lawr, elders of the Dugaburra clan, had invited us to their home to welcome us.
As we sat in a circle and Sib and Lawr passed around artifacts of their culture—stone tools, red and yellow ochre and black charcoal used for painting, and legal documents leftover from the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act (an Act that sounds much more harmless than it actually was)—they spoke to us about their history and their home.
In The Songlines, a travelogue of the Aboriginal Australians’ dreaming tracks and songs, Bruce Chatwin writes, “The Aboriginals had an earthbound philosophy. The earth gave life to a man; gave him his food, language and intelligence; and the earth took him back when he died. A man’s ‘own country,’ even an empty stretch of spinifex, was itself a sacred ikon that must remain unscarred…To wound the earth is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched: as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang the world into existence.”
This earthbound philosophy made itself known in the stories that Sib and Lawr told us. Raised in a time when Aboriginal people did their best to both maintain and recover as many elements of their culture as possible, they assimilated into white society. As soon as the school holidays came upon them, however, their grandparents took them into the bush for their other education. Sib referred to these bush lessons with her grandparents as “University,” and because of this experience, Sib knows which bush foods to eat and which medicines to take from the plants that surround her in the rainforest.
Coupled with this education are deep ties to her home country. Sib detailed the pain and heartbreak that many Aboriginal people have experienced when taken away from their homes. The Stolen Generation, the Aboriginal people who were taken from their families as children in a government effort to “breed the black out”—a policy that, cruelly, lasted until the 1970s—no longer know where they are from. In many cases, these people were brought to missions in places far away from their home country. Imagining this type of displacement, Sib said, “In the desert, my heart would break. I’d want to go home where the trees are close together. Some people have a deep longing but don’t know where to go home.”
This connection to home is part of why it was so important for Sib to welcome us to her country. That afternoon, she brought all the female students and me to sit in the shade of the rainforest trees to talk about “Women’s Business.” She passed around woven baskets, spoke about the responsibilities of gathering food and medicine from the forest, and told us about the two most sacred moments of a woman’s life: menstruating for the first time and carrying a child.
As a young child, her own name was given to her to mean “taking care of.” Sib has a mission to care for all of her family members, especially her children and grandchildren, to whom she will pass on the lessons she has learned. But after sitting with her in the Australian sunshine, we knew that she would take care of us, too. “Your essence and spirit will be left here,” she said. “Your footprints, the trees you planted—the ancestors will look after them. You’ve lived part of your life in our country. You’ll leave part of your spirit here. That’s a good thing, because it’s going to be safe.”
The end of November brought the first rain showers of the Wet Season, and with the soil moistened, our group dug 1,500 holes and put rainforest tree seedlings into the earth. We partnered with a local organization that is working to reforest the Atherton Tablelands and create corridors of rainforest to benefit the native wildlife. As I scooped the dirt in over the Atherton oak and bleeding heart seedlings, I couldn’t help but think of Sib’s words—that her ancestors would look over the trees we planted. The earthbound philosophy that bears the lessons the Aboriginal people live by was evident in this simple promise. Like any indigenous people, the Aboriginal Australians do not leave the landscape untouched, but they treat it with a love, appreciation, and respect that sustains generations. Each tiny seedling has value, as do the hands that put those seedlings in the ground and the early summer showers that gave them their first long, cool drink.