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John Bartlett: Country Is Self

Image: Unsplash, downloaded ( 08.10.2022.

The Skin We’re In

In the late nineteenth century my great-great-grandfather Thomas Bartlett (1842-1931) emigrated from Somerset with his parents and siblings and settled around the Lower Murray in South Australia. Typical of those early settlers in South Australia, and from a farming background, he saw the land as ripe for “development.” This ideology was based on the belief that land was to be conquered and developed and, in part, has a biblical basis (as well as being driven by the avarice and greed of men). In the book of Genesis, after his disobedience, Adam was cursed by god with the demand that: “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it' cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” (Genesis, Old Testament) This divine (and guilt-ridden) stricture became the default position when Judeo-Christian nations colonised new territories as was the case in Australia. Developing what appeared to be underutilized land became a religious imperative.

So it was that Thomas Bartlett was able to “settle” land around the Lower Murray, develop a logging industry and also mine the sandstone cliffs of the Murray River to supply many of the colonial buildings of the nearby developing city of Adelaide. The result of such developments was catastrophic for the First Nations people, the local Ngarrindjeri. A report from the State Library of South Australia summarises the results:

“The next onslaught came with British settlement in 1836 and thereafter. The settlers placed their domestic animals with their hard hooves on the fragile soil, and cut down the trees, and replaced the native grasses with their crops. The Aboriginal people and the native fauna were driven out, and many were placed in 'missions', where their traditional religion and cultural systems were eroded with the white man's religion, his food and drink, and his laws, and where the community boundaries were broken down or ignored. Aboriginal people were reduced from proud and independent hunter-gatherers, to the most demeaned race in white society. Many of the whites were well intentioned, but could not see, or understand, the effects that white society had on Aboriginal peoples' own society.” (State Library of South Australia)

Apart from the dislocation of First Nations peoples from their land, there was the added horror of frontier massacres, statistics of which are only slowly emerging. Historian Professor Lyndall Ryan has found evidence of at least 12,000 Indigenous deaths by violence on the “frontiers of central and eastern Australia alone.” (Dowling, 2021, p. xxvii). )

Perhaps less intentional was another “fatal contact” in the early days of the colonisation of Australia, including the Lower Murray where my great-grandparents and grandparents settled and it related to the effects of imported diseases, which further dislocated First Nations from their lands. Biological anthropologist Peter Dowling posits the hypothesis that the advent of disease into Europe and Asia was precipitated by the altered relationship between humans and their landscapes. This gradually came about with the “transformation for human populations from mobile hunter-gatherer economies to a more sedentary style of living in an agrarian economy.” These changes were exacerbated by developing human relationships with domesticated animals and to larger congregating groups where pathogens transferred easily from animal to human. (Dowling, 2021, p. xxviii)

Certainly by 1830, explorer Charles Sturt was reporting cases of syphilis along the Lower Murray and by the 1850s cases of respiratory illness and influenza were recorded amongst the Ngarrindjeri, where my great-grandfather was to establish his own kingdom. Separation from land and culture were both the cause and effect of the growing social and cultural dislocation of First Nations peoples. Whalers and sealers had been visiting the South Australian coast since 1802 and a smallpox epidemic, as well as syphilis that travelled down the River Murray before British colonisation, carried by these whalers and sealers, may have been responsible for killing a majority of the Ngarrindjeri.

I would like to believe that my great-great-grandfather was indeed “well intentioned” but nevertheless, his belief that land and its resources were to be utilised and commercialized, spelt an enormous change for the Ngarrindjeri. But as always, history and memory are full of contradictions and I recently discovered family stories that narrated how Thomas and his family had established a type of bartering system with the local Ngarrindjeri where he would provide milk from his cows in exchange for fish caught by the local people —a simple but powerful link between people and land that gives me some cause for hope. However, his generation and those following were unable overall to recognize the destructive consequences of their faith-based actions which is well summarised by Palyku woman Ambelin Kwaymullina:

"For Aboriginal peoples, country is much more than a place. Rock, tree, river, hill, animal, human – all were formed of the same substance by the Ancestors who continue to live in land, water, sky. Country is filled with relations speaking language and following Law, no matter whether the shape of that relation is human, rock, crow, wattle. Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and cares for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self."

First Nations peoples have had around 65,000 years to settle in and adapt to the landscapes of Australia (Dowling, 2021, p. xvi) so I wonder how long it takes for settler peoples to understand that land and nature are the skin we’re in and not some external force to be subjugated and controlled for commerce? Are we expecting too much from ourselves as the descendants of settlers, with a mere two hundred years plus, to fit comfortably into and feel at home in this environment? We still persist, for example, in imposing a rigid and artificial European grid on our relationship with weather, no matter where we live in Australia (perhaps apart from the tropical north). Indigenous weather knowledge relies on events in the natural world and differs substantially according to location. “To the people of D'harawal Country during Marrai'gang, when the cries of the Marrai'gang (quoll) seeking his mate can be heard, is the time when the lilly-pilly fruit begins to ripen on trees. However, when the lilly-pillys start to fall, it is time to mend the old warm cloaks from the last cold season, or make new ones, and begin the yearly trek to the coastal areas.” (Bureau of Meteorology) This is a much more intimate and subtle description of climate variability.

As I grow older, I’m painfully aware that this envelope of skin containing all my own bones and innards and all that allows me to function as a human being, has begun to break down. For most of my life everything functioned appropriately and I barely noticed this machine in which I operated. Now there are hearing, eyesight issues, pains I never noticed before, kidneys and prostate misbehaving. Perhaps I’m a metaphor for the land and nature within which I live, the natural skin of all that makes our planet function. Pre-Industrial revolution Nature appeared to function without fuss or expectation but now the biosphere has shown sign of rapid decline. Why did we not notice? Why did we not listen to the signs? Why was I not more aware of the limitations of my physical body too? Perhaps the crucial and forgotten elements were that we did not listen or notice sufficiently, two faculties we’re only just learning to exercise.

Here where I live, I’m blessed to both listen and notice, here where overdevelopment is still possible to resist, where nature and landscape still feel relatively unspoiled and its presence a spiritual experience. As a great-great-grandson, can I begin to compensate for my forebear’s rampant destruction of landscape by listening and noticing? Here, on the south coast of Victoria, there is still much to notice. How long does it take for “settler” nations to feel at home in the skin they’re in? Although we later arrivals in Australia may be inhabitants of this planet, yet the landscapes and spirits of Australia are still realities to which we are only beginning to adjust. How can we adapt to this ‘living in the skin’, which has been First Nations’ experience for millennia?

And so I must turn my attention to the task of “listening” and “noticing”. Here where I live this is a privilege rather than a task. Minutes from the beach and the Southern ocean I can walk in dunes where shell middens, left by feasting Indigenous people, still lie untouched, where I often see swamp wallabies, kangaroos, echidnas and a plethora of water birds. The local First Nations, the Wathaurong, still retain stories of how they built fish-traps in the creek estuary where I may walk every day if I choose. Their stories have not yet been erased from this landscape.

Sensitivity to our local landscape has motivated people in our community to take responsibility for this delicate skin that holds us all together. For the twenty plus years I have lived here, a band of locals (all women!) have taken responsibility to care for the endangered Hooded Plover, a non-migratory small bird which nests and breeds on open beaches where dog-walkers may disturb vulnerable nests scraped in sand above the high water mark. These women are relentless in their midwifery, erecting beach signage and keeping dog-walkers at bay as much as possible and with minimum aggression on both sides.

Another local project, FrogID is a national citizen science project, part of a national campaign of the Australian Museum to help record frog calls through the free FrogID app, as a measurement of frog health and distribution around the nation. More than 10,000 calls have already been submitted identifying 105 species. In the Karaaf wetlands behind the dunes here I have already been able to identify three frog species – the Eastern Banjo Frog, the Common Eastern Froglet and the Spotted Marsh Frog. To be honest I relish the role of being a small citizen scientist but maybe I am just fooling myself. As serious as I am about observing and helping to conserve where I can I am still part of a system which is dislocated from landscapes.

It is estimated that “between 60-80 per cent of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption.” (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2016) Driving a car and heating a home have enormous impacts on elevating greenhouse emissions. Many of the foods I happily purchase from the local supermarket require enormous volumes of water to produce.

“This is particularly bad news for me when it comes to chocolate, which is one of the most water-intensive products we can buy. It takes a shocking 17,000 litres to produce a kilo of chocolate.” But do I intend to give up my chocolate passion? Probably not.

Perhaps my citizen scientist hat is a mere convenience, tokenistic at best and a way to assuage my guilt, both for my own consumerism and the blind adventurism of my great-grandfather. This is not a comfortable position in which to find myself.

As a great-great-grandson of the settler generation, I cannot hope to walk the land in the same ways as First Nations peoples do. Despite my newly appreciated “noticing” and “listening”, I must acknowledge that I am still a willing member of an economic system that is destructive to the environment. These crucial questions of seeing ourselves as part of the planet depend on time and numbers. When will we realize and when will our numbers peak sufficiently?

Author Luke Stegman makes an honest and startling observation in calling Australia “unknowable” (Stegman, L, 2021, p. 262). As recent descendants of the settler generation, we are still strangers in these landscapes, still kindergarten students, reliant on the ancient knowledge of First Nations and required to be humble in our limitations.

We must take time, as slow as those lessons are, to become custodians of the lands on which we live, to nurture this wild, wonderful “skin” in which we exist and without which everything will be lost and fall apart.


Ambelin Kwaymullina: Meaning of land to Aboriginal people - Creative Spirits

Bureau of Meteorology (Australian Government) : Indigenous Weather Knowledge - Indigenous Seasonal Descriptions (

Dowling, P., 2021, Fatal Contact: How epidemics Nearly Wiped out Australia’s First Peoples, Monash University Publishing

Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2016) Here's how what you buy affects the environment (

State Library of South Australia: Aboriginal Australians and the river : Aboriginal life along the Murray (

Stegman, L., 2021, Amnesia Road: Landscape, Violence and Memory, NewSouth Publishing

About the Author: John Bartlett is the author of eight books -fiction, non-fiction and poetry. In 2019 his first Chapbook The Arms of Men was published and Songs of the Godforsaken in June 2020. Awake at 3am, his full collection, was released by Ginninderra Press.

He was the winner of the 2020 Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize and Highly Commended in the 2021 Mundaring Poetry Competition. He reviews and podcasts at Twitter: @beyond_estuary


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