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Talking up country: language, natureculture and interculture in Australian environmental education research.

Learner, teachers and educational researchers are often constrained--in a whole range of ways--by the dominant discourses ... [which] are often so powerful ... that it can be all but impossible to "step out of the box" ... We would do well to ask ourselves whose discourse we are enacting, whose "truth" we are both reflecting and perpetuating. (Atkinson in Atkinson & Swann, 2003, p. 137, quoted by Reid, 2009, p. 130)

Rediscovering Natureculture

Australia is an island continent with an immensely long history of human settlement, much older than that of Europe and the Americas. Yet the nation of Australia (as a federation of individual states) was only established 110 years ago. In deliberating on the Australian-ness of environmental education research for this special issue, I decided to focus on the unique mix of the extremely old and the relatively new, the ancientness and the innovation that characterises what I know as "Australia". I thought about the settlement history of this country. I read the literature, the works of writers who engaged in passionate analyses of the renegotiations of settlement histories. I drew on evidence that largely has its origins in the Australian tropics because that is where I live. And I came to write a paper that makes a philosophical argument for a more nuanced approach to the difficult task of understanding people and place in contemporary times. This is not a paper about Australian environmental education research. This is a work of scholarship that emerges from the reading I have done as an

Australian environmental education researcher. In this paper, I present an argument that, due to many tens of thousands of years of human settlement, the continent of Australia can be considered as a natureculture, a continuously inhabited country, owned, known, taught, farmed, fished, loved and feared. The concept of natureculture is also highly relevant to researching the Anthropocenic complications of contemporary times.

Every person who engages in educational research in Australia is very much a product of collective history of this continent, whether they are an Indigenous or non-indigenous person, no matter where they live and no matter what their research interests. You may be very familiar with the current map of Australia, but if you wish to consider what Australian settlement looked like before European colonisation, a wonderfully illustrative map is published on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies website (address is Sorted by language or tribal groupings, the map represents the facts of Indigenous settlement. I draw your attention to this map to emphasise the point that everything that is, or has been done, or not done, in Australian education is contextualised by the history of European colonisation. The preoccupations of formal, state sanctioned education are intimately tied up with the project of colonisation and of European political and economic expansionism. And while colonies are never replicas of their imperialist centres, they do tend to reproduce "a particular realisation of the imperialist imagination" (Tuhiwai Smith, 1999, p. 23). Those realisations can be quite different to the original imaginations of the colonised peoples. I begin from Tuhiwai Smith's (1999, p. 21) argument that imperialism can manifest "as a discursive field of knowledge". And then I proceed to excavate and compare long extant environmental discourses with those introduced to the Australian continent with European colonisation. My analysis is partial and I draw on a small suite of published texts that come from the far north-eastern tropics. My intention is only to pay attention.

Which brings me to the first point in my argument that "environment" in Australian formal education policy, curriculum and research is still largely imagined from within colonial framings, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readings of country relegated to an extramural positionality. The orderly construction of an abstracted, and often displaced, "environment" is both the subject and the object of educational praxis. "Environment" is a convenient discursive category (I am employing a Foucauldian notion that discourse is a field of thought). However, the term "environment" can be devoid of specific and specified biophysical, geochemical and ethnographic meaning. Berry (1977, p. 22), was always critical of the term "environment", writing, "Once we see our place, our part of the world as surrounding us, we have already made a profound division between it and ourselves". And use of the term "the environment" remains problematic in that it continues to cause "widespread confusion" among children and adults alike (Smyth, 2005, p. 4).

The confusion occurs because these discourses that divide a contiguous fabric of life into oppositional binary categories, such as "humans" and "the environment", were imported into the Australian continent from the other side of the world. In contemporary Australia, "everything that is official, institutional and corporate insists on this separation between Culture, where people live, and Nature, which is there for people to exploit" (Muecke, 2007). These binaries, as discourses establishing a received "order of things" (per Foucault, 1970), were introduced with European settlement, along with rabbits, camels, starlings, roses, cats and cucumbers. Way back in time, the original waves of human immigration to the southern continent brought people who did not, and still do not, divide our biosphere in such ways. For example, in far northeast Queensland, the types of environmental ordering with European origins such as "scrub", "jungle", "rainforest", "the tropical environment" and "Wet Tropics World Heritage Area" are very different from the original, Indigenous systems of meaning making. In Djabugay language, "balmba" means habitable country--or wet woodlands in European terms--and "bama balmba" translates to English as a person or people quite at home within these wet woodlands (Bottoms, 1999).

Davison (2008) researched "ideas of nature and the everyday lives of [Australian] environmentalists" and discovered a profound "ambivalence" in how English-speaking environmentalists engage with the dualisms forced upon them. The linguistic contortions of the people Davison interviewed stand in direct contrast to the straightforwardness of Djjabugay understandings of how bama' (people) and a "balmba" (woodland) together become "bama balumba". The original Djabugandi people were semi-permanent rainforest settlers who lived in woodland clearings (Djjabugay Incorporated, 2010). In practical Djabujay thinking, people and place are all in it together. There is no fictional divide between a human culture and an external Nature and its contemporary corollary, an externalised Environment.

Colonial migration brought "that European 'culture' which, ever since the Enlightenment, separates off Nature, treating it as a uniform backdrop to the diversity of 'our' cultures [and] as an exploitable resource which cannot answer back" (Muecke, 2008, p. 99). None of the first peoples of the Australian continent ever bothered to "propose such a grandiose concept as Nature" (ibid). Muecke (2008, p. 104) makes the point that "there is no absolute nature 'out there' to which 'we' can go . humans and non-humans are always acting on each other in naturecultures". "Nature" is an empirical fiction. Attempts to disentangle one category from the other will always fail, for "our natures and cultures are always shot through with second natures in the process of becoming" (ibid). The difference being that Djjabugay people, for all those hundreds of centuries, never made any pretence the world was otherwise. I have spent many hours scouring the published dictionaries of Indigenous Australian languages, searching in vain for any terms that translate as "Nature" or as "The Environment", or anything remotely approaching what Muecke (2004, p. 103) calls, "the conceptual architecture of modern Western thought". There is not one hint of such grandiosity to be found in the publicly available literature that documents the remaining languages of40,000--60,000 + years of extant human settlement in Australia. What I find most intriguing is that the contemporary and highly influential scholarship on naturecultures (for example Haraway, 1997, 2003, 2008; Latour, 2004, 2007; Muecke, 2008, 2009) reproduces long established ontological understandings endemic to the Australian continent. And Djjabugay understandings long precede contemporary socionature scholarship. With growing global awareness we now live in the Anthropocene, Puig de la Bellacasa (2010, p. 152) notes there is "renewed contemporary awareness that we live in a naturecuture world". Davison (2008, p. 1287) argues for socionature scholarship as a means for recognising and moving past "internal inconsistencies" in Australian environmentalism holding the promise of "less adversarial and more supple engagements" within society.

Considerations of Language and History

The formation of the contemporary nation of Australia began with the arrival of boats from the United Kingdom that landed in Sydney Cove on the 26th of January 1788. (This date in January is now formally celebrated as Australia Day, and is a declared public holiday. It is also known as invasion day.) The distinguished anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner (1991) saw the modern history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a long and painful search for an accommodation with Australian immigrant society. The reciprocal immigrant accommodation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is also necessary. It is timely to reconsider how Australian environmental education scholars and educators can make our own accommodation with the ideas of the first peoples of this continent.

One means for advancing our thinking towards reconciling the older and endemic understandings with those produced though formal education is to consider more seriously the matter of language. The formal language of education in Australia is "Standard" Australian English--a derivative of a dialect from the southeast of the United Kingdom. The fact this dialect derivative became the language of formal education in Australia, a continent with once over 600 languages from 250 language groups, is not a matter of linguistics but a legacy of politics and power (Tripcony, 2000). Bourdieu has argued that any "standard language" is only one of many versions, socially highly specific and "generally bound up with the history of state formation" (Jenkins, 2002, p. 153). Bourdieu (1986) takes a wide view of sociology and he considers it quite reasonable to research and analyse language, "culture" and education together because "they are all concerned with the manner in which domination is achieved by the manipulation of symbolic and cultural resources" (Jenkins 2002, p.153).

The history of the formation of the continental, nation state of Australia is intricately tied to the linguistic colonisation of the continent by English--a language that brings with it a freight of dualistic meta-concepts, including that of an othered "Nature" category nominally based on bodily difference. Historically, not only have viruses, bacteria, fungi, plants and non-Human animal bodies composed this category. Women, too, have been classified as belonging to a naturalised realm and systematically excluded from educational, economic and political activity. As were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, far too many of whom suffered the indignity of being classified as Australian fauna upon their birth and excluded from formal census gathering up until the latter half of the 20th century. (This is no minor matter when the state distributes educational, infrastructural and social resources based on census data.) This difficult social history is, in my view, an argument for treating the Nature-Human binary with great scepticism in contemporary Australian scholarship.

Language serves practical ends, institutional as well as social. Therefore, an examination of what is, and what is not possible to think and speak in the dominant language is germane to a discussion of environmental education research in Australia. In an editorial on directions of international environmental education research, Alan Reid (2009, p. 138) argued that researchers must more fully engage with "questions about the relationship between environmental education praxis and deep seated personal, social and cultural structures, often tacit and hidden, that govern the ways we think and how we act". Reid is concerned with what he calls "the problem of anglocentricity" in environmental education research, and this is not just a comment as to where the majority of research is produced.

To de-anglicise the field is not only a matter of fostering greater international inclusivity. The project can also extend to an ontological interrogation of the very language used to constitute the field. Many environmental education researchers commonly employ the terms "the natural environment", "the environment" and "nature" (e.g., as "in contact with") in their own writing. Thereby reproducing the language of binary thinking and, consequently, "the 'Euro-modernity' that has proven itself unsustainable in its conceptual architecture . and driven its material consequences to its planetary limits" (Muecke, 2009, p. 405). In Australia, a willingness to unproblematically reproduce the great binaries of the Enlightenment can appear as continuing the project of colonisation, when this is not the intention of environmental thinkers and researchers at all. The scholars who wrestle with the concepts of place-based education and critical pedagogies of place (see Stevenson, 2011 this issue), for example, are trying to make their own ways past the limitations of discursive binaries by paying attention to place, to land and to the surfaces we inhabit. I have taken up a different analytical approach in considering the deployment of language rather than concentrating attention on geographies (whether virtual or real). However, there is a collective desire among many Australian scholars to unpick ourselves from the laces of history, to search for more mobile meanings for research practice, to make environmental education something more than a reproduction of a colonising history, and to perform academic research that advances method and purpose towards "decolonising" (see Tuhiwai Smith, 1999) education practice.

"Whitefella Taxonomy" can be "Tongueless and Earless"

When researching language and the discursive categories a standardised language produces--what Muecke (2008, p. 99) calls "whitefella taxonomy"--it is important to understand that "languages are not merely systems of rules . they are also vehicles of social interaction and badges of social identity . shaped by socio-cultural forces [and] conditioned by social practice, social relationships and attendant ideologies" (Winford, 2003, p. 35). All manner of interesting relationships emerge when attention is paid to the language employed for environmental education. Stanner (1991, p. 44) was one scholar who noted that a problem with English is it is, "a different tradition [that] leaves us [immigrants] tongueless and earless to this other world of meaning and significance" in comparison to the subtleties of language through which old indigenous meanings for place are constituted. Stanner noted that, "no English words are good enough" to give a sense of the social links between people and place that serve as the cultural fulcrum of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. He gives the example of the English term "home" and remarks that, "warm and suggestive though it be" the word "home", "does not match the aboriginal word that may mean 'camp', 'hearth', 'country', everlasting home', 'totem place', 'life source', 'spirit centre' and all else in one. 'Land' is too spare and meagre" (Stanner 1991, p. 44).

The difference is ontological. However, this paper is written from an optimistic view that the many tensions between different ontological orderings are, at least, partially negotiable in contemporary Australian environmental education. The adjective "environmental" proves useful in setting out directions for curriculum, pedagogy and research praxis expressly critical of dominant ways of thinking that privilege economic growth without limits. However, researchers in the fields of EE/ EfS/ESD do not have to uncritically accept the hegemonic orderings of English. English is a logo-centric language that travels well through time. The fact that English is no longer tied to any aspect of the earth's geography probably explains its success as a global language. English may be "spare and meagre" when it comes to constituting intimate and embedded meanings in Australia. But that very absence of geographic attachment means a displaced English in now the most powerful and economically desirable language in the world. Cloete (2011, p, 1) analyses the power of English is that it takes its "European-based meaning systems" across continents "at the expense of indigenous knowledge systems, cultural practices and languages", and that "the culturally embedded meaning systems" of English "have become so naturalised they remain largely unquestioned".

I have become quite fascinated with the use of the noun marker (definite article) "the" commonly employed in environmental writing. "The" environment is a term that is meant to "encompass" everything (alive, dead or inanimate) that does not fall into the category Human--whomever "human" is constituted to be at any given time. In environmental education, "the environment" is held to be the singular central subject and object of environmental education research and praxis. However, the "the" (as in "the natural environment") is not locatable on the ground and use of this terminology gives no clues at all as to where or what is being referred. Does "the natural environment", for instance, mean a coral reef, or a mangrove swamp, or a beach or a local conservation park? When children desirably "experience the natural environment" what does this mean? Do these same children exist wholly in a cultural space at other times, or a non-natural environment? If so, are the ants that invade sugar jars or the geckoes that run across ceilings non-nature? These are unanswerable questions when a contiguous biosphere is fictionally divided against itself. The tensions and contradictions bear too much weight and the logic collapses. My critique is that a singularised "the environment" cannot carry any sense of meaning with respect to the subtleties of place such as the diversity of climates and geographies, the differences between torrid and temperate zones or the difference between Tully and Launceston.

The lack of place specificity and the erasure of lived relationships appear to be a problem inherent in the use of English. The Jirrbal and Girramay people of Jumbum (1992) in the Upper Murray region (adjacent to the legally declared Wet Tropics World Heritage Area), record four noun markers in place of the one English noun marker "the". These are: "bala", a noun marker for inanimate objects; "balam" for edible objects; "balan" for feminine nouns and nouns associated with fire, water and danger; and "gayi" for masculine nouns. There are also four additional nouns markers translated into English as "this" which indicate a sense of proximity. There are: "ginya", a noun marker for inanimate objects; "ginyam" for edible objects; "ginyan" for feminine nouns and nouns associated with fire, water and danger and "giyi" for masculine nouns. While use of masculine and feminine nouns is common in many languages other than English, the notification of conditions of edibility, dangerousness, proximity and inanimateness add great suppleness of meaning in Jirrbal and Girramay.

There is similar suppleness with respect to Jirrbal and Girramay word endings. In a monograph titled Jaban bububgga nyajun wabubungga: trans. Eel cooking in the rainforest (Jumbun Ltd. & Pedley, 1992), Pedley records that "jaban" means eel; "jjabanda" means at, in or on the eel; "jjabanu" means belonging to the eel; "jabunga" means an action done to the eel; and "jabangunu" means from the eel. Such relational conditions concerning an edible fish are simply not available in English. Cloete (2011, p. 2) makes the argument that English's "signal weakness is its placement as a language of the metropole". Jirrbal and Girramay are people from the far northern, coastal, hot, wet woodlands--in contemporary parlance, a "rainforest". Most urbanites (and Australia is largely an urban nation) would find these woodlands difficult country to experience even for a short while. As Johnston (1997, p. 45) explained it, "ten minutes in a rainforest taught me it was no paradise". The sheer intense thickness is confronting to the senses. The heat is cloying and close. There are large, succulent eels, but there is also a surfeit of leeches, biting insects, poisonous reptiles, stinging trees and stabbing vines. Vegetation grows in profusion. And yet Flood (1989, p. 261) describes the Jirrbal people as "masters of economics [having] a healthier and more nutritious diet than have many Europeans today". And Pedley notes the social system of the six dialect groups she worked with was rich and complex. Jirrbal and Girramay home country is not some "wilderness" that exists to succour a jaded western imagination. It is a natureculture, same as everywhere else on the continent.

A strong argument for a sympathetic hearing for the adoption of a socionature scholarship and of adopting the concept of natureculture in environmental education research is, again, to be found in history. The Australian continent has never been "pure wilderness because it has always been interfered with by humans as far back as we can know. Most so called wilderness in Australia is overgrown Aboriginal country" (Muecke, 2008, p. 97). All areas presently claimed as "Nature" and as "natural" on this continent were and are somebody's home country--intricately known, intimately loved, studiously mapped and prodigiously sung. Griffiths (1996) discovered that from an Aboriginal standpoint, the despoilment of land due to European colonisation creates a "wilderness". Land that has been cared for is normal, "quiet land". Land that has been degraded by pastoralism (running cattle or sheep) has been turned into "wild country".

The wilderness idea is not just anthropocentric, it is Eurocentric ... [The concept of wilderness] restores landscapes as Europeans supposedly found them--and as Aborigines made them--and calls them untouched and pristine. Aborigines are therefore rendered invisible as agents in the landscape. Is this terra nullius in another form? ... One Aboriginal man, Daly Pulkara, speaks of land that has been cared for as "quiet land", and land that has been degraded by pastoralism as "wild country". His wilderness is European made. (Griffiths, 1996, p. 263)

The British colonisation of Australia was predicated on the convenient lie--the legal fiction--of terra nullius or empty land. The resultant effect was that vast numbers of Aboriginal people were physically, politically, economically and socially alienated from their own country. To present but one example: George Skeene records he is a descendent of the Yirriganydji, Wakaman and Birri Gau. As a child he lived on two Aboriginal Reserves in Cairns. Now a rainforest historian, he is a good friend to a number of academics at James Cook University. Segregation for his family started in the 1880s with the arrival of colonists in the far north and continued through the 1960s. His politics of skin began at birth. This is his account:

When I was born in 1948, Mum was in the maternity ward with all the white people. Mum could pass for a white person. Uncle Charlie, Mum's brother, told me the following story. Dad went to visit Mum and picked a few flowers from the hospital garden. As soon as the nursing staff saw Dad, Mum was moved to the ward with all the Aboriginal mothers and the other Mums whose skin was not white. This ward was called the "alien ward". It seems if you were not white you were treated as an alien. (Skeene 2008, p. 12 italics mine)

When Skeene attended school he found the settlement history of his family was actively ignored (or actively eradicated) from Australian history classes.
 The lies that were told of Aboriginal people seem to be endless. We
 are the most studied people on the planet, and yet very little in
 known about us. My schoolteacher in the history classes said the
 first lies I heard [that Australia was first "settled" in 1788]. I
 still don't know why lying is an accepted part of Australian life.
 (p. 226)

One of the continuing challenges of Australian academic life is to find a way through the accumulating distortions of place and history in order to rethink the ambiguities of the present. As an academic, I have no scholarly interest in reproducing a colonising discourse in researching somebody else's home country. This is why I think the bridging concept of natureculture is an enticing (and intellectually exciting) venture to consider in environmental education research. Firstly, because the proposition of natureculture explicitly accepts that people always live within both "nature" and "culture" and not on one side or the other of this rather un-Enlightening discursive divide. Secondly, because interpretations of natureculture offer environmentally attentive researchers some means for reconciling the disgraces of Australian history (see Kidd, 1997 and Skeene, 2008,) and take responsibility for redressing what McGloin (2009, p. 37) calls "the lies, silences and omissions that continue to shape Australian history and to mark out the limitations of Australian citizenship". Thirdly, the concept natureculture offers an elegant solution to the bedevilling problematic of imported binary thinking that represents the mental habits of the colonisers, not the colonised. And fourthly, if we pluralise, naturescultures, this opens up some really interesting spaces for alternative forms of scholarship yet to be realised.

Interculture in Australian Scholarship

At this point you may be thinking, is it really possibility to do environmental education research in Australia beyond "the environment"? The answer is yes of course. There are all manner of opportunities available. I will follow one track suggested by Nakata (2006, 2007), a Torres Strait Islander scholar, to illuminate relevant opportunities presented by the emerging discursive (and political spaces) of intercultural accommodation. Nakata (2006, p. 272) proposes that what is needed is "a different conceptualisation of cross cultural space, not a clash of opposites and differences, but . a layered entanglement of concepts, theories and sets of meaning". Nakata's work consistently makes clear just how extensively Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems have been marginalised in the academy, across all disciplines, and the field of environmental education research proves no exception. Nakata (2007) proposes that scholars work at what he calls the "cultural interface". While he is not convinced that bodies of indigenous knowledge can ever be contained within the academy's traditions, Nakata (2007, p. 199) conceptualises the interface as intersecting transactions "between different people with different histories, experience, language, agendas, aspirations, and responses". What is formed is a space to "produce cohesive, consensual and cooperative social practices" notwithstanding "the contradictions, ambiguities, conflict and contestation of meanings that emerge from these various intersections" (ibid). The purpose is to "elevate what might not have been the [previous] focus of attention" (p. 214). Thus the cultural interface is where "people discard and take up different ways of understanding" (p. 208).

Scholarship at the cultural interface is described by McGloin (2009, p. 39) as a "place of negotiation where unlearning can occur, and new knowledges [are] given primacy . it can be a site of struggle [as] the process of unlearning is never easy". Taking up this point, the "unlearning" of "grandiose", aging, Enlightenment binaries is really tough. Unlearning what you know, teach and have been taught is really very difficult. As McGloin (2009, p. 40) cooly puts it, "defamiliarising can lead to a feeling of discomfort". And yet there are many examples in Australian environmental and education praxis where people have made genuine attempts to unlearn and relearn and to work together at a cultural interface. Doing what Paddy Roe (in Benterrak, Muecke & Roe, 1996) once asked, "You people try and dig a little more deep. You been digging only white soil--try and find the black soil inside".

Talking Up Country

The concept of country is an emerging space for intercultural negotiation in Australian environmental education, environmental management and environmental communication. Country is a very, very old concept--it is not preceded by a "the". Rose (1996, p. 7) explains that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people "talk about country in the same way that they would talk about person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country". This is because "country is home, and peace; nourishment for the body, mind and spirit; heart's ease" (ibid). Country means far more than "land", "landscape" or "environment". Country is a relationship--a contiguous way of seeing, being and acting. Country is tens of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge and understanding. Rose (1996) argues there is nowhere else in the world where such a body of knowledge has been built up "so consistently" for so long. But this knowledge is not only cerebral; it is also an embrace--somatic, cellular, spirit laden, blood pumping, heartfelt. Country is not only a terrestrial concept. Sea country is also known, claimed and owned. According to the Northern Land Council:

Coastal people have been connected to saltwater country for many thousands of years and it remains an intimate part of their everyday existence today. The concept of the sea as a public commons or open access space was imported to Australia at the time of colonisation. Aboriginal concepts of the sea are intimately linked to traditional ownership and management in the same way that places in the land are connected. (Northern Land Council, 2003)

Country is a highly sophisticated recognition and expression of (a) natureculture. No binary is made between human and other. All country is owned. Both traditional land and sea country ownership and management responsibilities is based on customary lore/law, that is, passed from one generation to another, and held in a sacred trust, where people have "specific and complementary rights and obligations to ensure the spiritual and physical health of defined areas" (Northern Land Council, 2003). The relational subtleties and complexities of country are not always readily translatable into English. Wandjuk Marika (1995) puts it this way ("they" are immigrant settlers to her country):

They don't know about the tree, who is the tree, what the tree is. They don't know what the grass is, who the grass is or what is in the earth and what is in the mountains, and what is in the trees. A tree is a tree, yes, but we have individual names. What is my tree and what is my mother's? Which river is my grandmother or which mountain is also my mother? (Marika 1995 cited by Jagtenberg & McKie, 1997 p. 98)

Country is both an ancient and completely contemporary concept. And, in the age of facing up to anthropogenic climate change, Australian governments are supporting a number of programs that recover the concept of caring for country as a means for managing the environment, in a complex and contradictory, but highly salient, example of working the cultural interface. In 1995, the Northern Land Council in the Northern Territory set up a Caring for Country unit to specifically assist Indigenous landowners "deal with the new land and sea management challenges they faced and to consider commercial enterprises promising environmentally sustainable development" (Northern Land Council, 2003). Increasingly it is recognised that old knowledge and new science can be applied together across tropical Australia to stabilise and repair environmental destruction.

The Australian Government in its national, "natural" resource management program has recently adopted the concept of "caring for country". Though its most recent manifestation adds a sense of nationalism in that the name of the program is now called "caring for our country". Caring for our Country "integrates the Australian Government's previous natural resource management initiatives, including the Natural Heritage Trust, the National Landcare Program, the Environmental Stewardship Program and the Working on Country Indigenous land and sea ranger programs" to establish "national priorities and outcomes to refocus investment on protection of our environment and sustainable management of our natural resources" (Australian Government Land and Coasts, 2011). Country has replaced "the environment" as the entity that needs to be cared for. The contemporary technical language of "outcomes" and "business plans" and "investment strategies" is incorporated with the ancient concept of country and a AUD two billion dollar budget to "achieve an environment that is healthy, better protected, well-managed, resilient and provides essential ecosystem services in a changing climate" (ibid).

Similar hybrids at the cultural interface are appearing in tropical marine education. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has introduced a highly successful Reef Guardians Program to schools in Great Barrier Reef catchments. In extending the program to Cape York schools, Indigenous communities were asked to participate in the Sea Country Guardians program. The concept of sea country guardians is developed for all school communities in a monograph titled Reef Beat 2010 Sea Country Connections Activity Book (GBRMPA, 2010)--a project funded by the Australian Government's Caring for Our Country program. The concept of country is explained as "not just the physical features but includes objects, resources, knowledge, stories and sense of belonging". Ownership is explained as "cultural and legal rights and custodial responsibilities for that country" (p. 1). Distinctions are drawn between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander understandings and those constructed from "a western viewpoint". Nevertheless, the concept of sea country is dealt with seriously and with propriety.

The term "country", of course, is an ontological transposition that is only partially communicable in English. As Muecke (in Benterrak, Muecke & Roe, 1996, p. 17) remarks, "not even the wildest European imagination could produce the Nyigina man Paddy Roe's reading of country: the words are just not there". However, use of the term, in English, in Australia education and resource management practices, is an act of stepping out of the legacies of colonisation. The greater education enterprise can be explained as "a nation-wide focus on the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their cultures" (GBRMPA, 2010). I see country as representative of a kind of extra territoriality and the use of the term in contemporary environmental practice (this includes education) brings us to spaces where the contingent and relational nature of knowledge(s) become more apparent. There are means for thinking and acting outside the hobbling histories of binary thinking. In doing so, some possibility for reconciling the differing ontologies of understanding this country emerge. In Australia, scholars can draw on tens of thousands of years of thinking to construct contemporary understandings. As educators, we can work at a cultural interface, no matter how clumsy the first attempts to do so may appear. This task is not without its difficulties. Nakata (2007, p. 191) cautions scholars that working "in this contested space between knowledge systems, things are not clearly black and white, Indigenous or Western. In this space are histories, politics, economics, multiple and interconnected discourses, social practices and knowledge technologies which condition how we all come to look at the world, how we come to know and understand our changing realities".

The thing is, in Australia, in this magnificent, vast island, we are all in this together--the families who have been here for tens of centuries and the families who have just arrived. Environmental education in Australia has the task of reaching everyone in this complex old/new immigrant nation. Perhaps this is what makes environmental education scholarship so challenging in this country. And what also speaks to the "uniqueness" of Australian environmental education research. There are the colonising discourses with which we have become so familiar and then there are these very ancient, traditionally maintained discourses and re-emerging fields of knowledge on which scholars can draw. Language, history, interculture, and negotiations about the cultural interface--these can all form part of scholarly explorations into the natureculture of Australia.


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Hilary Whitehouse ([dagger])

James Cook University

([dagger]) Address for correspondence: A/Professor Hilary Whitehouse, James Cook University, PO Box 6811, Cairns, Queensland 4870, Australia. Email:

Author Biography

Hilary Whitehouse is an Associate Professor and Director of Research in the School of Education at James Cook University, Cairns. She teaches the Graduate Certificate of Education for Sustainability and in the Masters of Education for Sustainability program at JCU, and, over many years, has become an expert in delivering science and environmental education online and internationally. Her research interests include discursive analyses and climate change education.
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Author:Whitehouset, Hilary
Publication:Australian Journal of Environmental Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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