Video: This incredible example of storytelling comes from the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceremony showing the unity of Australia’s 250 aboriginal tribes.
The Dreaming, Dream Law and Ecological Ethics
But how do dreams connect with waking, material reality? What influence can dreams, myths and collective ritual have on the physical environment and how can these elements contribute to a universal environmental ethic? No culture proposes a more profound answer to this question than the aboriginals of Australia, whose complex conception of life sees creation as a transient, continuous ‘bringing forth,’ flowing from what they call Alcheringa or Dreamings.
As the world’s oldest, still-living culture at 40,000 years old, the aboriginal sense of ecological relationship stems from their understanding of creation as a reciprocal act. For them, the creation of the world began in a mythic time called the Dreamtime through the actions of the Sky Heroes, but it is only through the active participation of humans in Dreamings and ritual does the integrity of the earth remain intact.
Tribal law is handed down from this time that pre-exists time and is called the Dream Law. In this pre-modern model of the collective unconscious, some aboriginal groups believe that the Dreamtime is not an occurrence in the long-gone past, but still continues to operate and come into being concurrently with this reality, particularly during Dreaming rites (Cowan 22). This is striking evidence that speaks to the timelessness of the notion for a greater and deeper consciousness beyond the waking life.
In the aboriginal view, the earth is seen as generating a mythic culture all its own and is a symbol in its own right, as its coming into being is not a geological process, but rather a mythical one (Cowan 12). Embedded in this web of life, humans are only here to sing and re-enact its story. Hence, Dreamings are not only site-specific within the vast open spaces of Australia, but they also weave a tightly-knit interconnection of sacred geography that is meant to be continually to be brought into being by Dreamings.
According to the Victoria River people for example, everything came into being by Dreaming and everything exists because of and through relationships upheld by Dreaming (Rumsey & Weiner 104). In this context, the human place in this world is not as the topmost dominator, but as an integral supporter of the very processes that give humans life – which is as mature of an ecological ethic as anyone will find.
Within this ethic, dreaming here is ritualized and subsumes the individual’s duty to mutually care for the land by tying one’s essence back to his or her origins in creative dreaming act itself. The aboriginals’ skillful means of devoting mythic meaning to their ecological responsibilities provides great inspiration for modernity’s ethical confusion, while also indicating how even an individual’s Dreaming can be grounded in a larger and deeper meaning.
Dilemma of language
However, the dilemma is also not just of ethics, but also of language; it is the highly-developed complexity of syntax, grammar of aborigine languages that allowed for such rich mythologies to exist and is a language that is currently lacking in modernity. As such, earlier settlers and anthropologists alike mistook the intimate aboriginal relationship to land and country for one of primitive parasitism, for the aboriginals “are absolutely dependent on what nature produces without any practical assistance on their part” (Rumsey & Weiner 101).
But this shallow conclusion arises from the fact that there is simply no comparative linguistic basis to adequately express the aboriginal relationship to land. For instance, “country” is understood by the aboriginals to be what gives humans and all life “body.” It is the duty of all ephemeral beings, including humans, to constantly “walk around organizing the country” in order to “bring forth the life of the world,” to bring forth the story – for if “you take care of the country, the country takes care of you” (Rumsey & Weiner 109).
Recent anthropological work is only now revealing the deeper aboriginal awareness of ecology due to recognition of aboriginal management practices such as fire-stick farming. As Deborah Bird Rose notes, “numerous studies have shown aboriginal people’s proactive care of Australian fauna, flora and ecosystems… both the distribution and diversity of Australian biota… are artifacts of Aboriginal people’s intentional actions” (Rumsey & Weiner 102).
Thus, “country” in this sense is not the Western idea of territory or nation, rather it is a kind of sacred body non-politic from which all life originates and cannot be owned. Earth’s narrative is for and by all creation. This definition of “country” points to an obvious difference in meaning, intent and cultural mores – and ultimately, highlights the importance of intent and the boundaries of modern language.
Invigorated by ritual Dreamings and founded in a reverence for life, it is from the aborigine “emplaced myth” that an ecological ethic naturally grows. As James Cowan emphasizes, “myth is a way of attaching deeper psychological meaning to the principle of intellectual understanding, whereby modes of behaviour, new discoveries and metaphysical insights themselves are successfully integrated into the overall pattern of existence” (68).
On the way to a new ecological ethic, it becomes obvious that modern societies need to not only evolve their mythology to reflect emerging metaphysical experiences of life’s interdependence, but that also the limits of language must be deconstructed to express these nascent myths.
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