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  • Tim Muirhead

Feeling Country

This was a talk I gave as one of a panel of 3 non-Aboriginal people at a ‘Danjoo Koorliny’ gathering. We were asked to talk about ‘How do we walk together on country?’, and base our responses on one book that had influenced us. 

How do we walk together on country?  This is a deeply spiritual question for me. It starts, I think, by knowing, and then bringing, my full self—mind, body; heart, spirit and soul—to this country, and to my relationship with its custodians. I want to tell something of my own journey in this. (It’s just my journey, but, along with Carole and Alan’s thoughts, maybe it will spark some reflections for you)

For me, it started, not with a book but with a map – an Ordnance Survey Map.

See, I’ve long had this deep intuitive sense that “my soul resides in the memories of my ancestors”. And only 5 generations of my ancestors lived on this continent, and none on Nyoongar country. The vast majority of them lived in England. And an Ordnance Survey map introduced me to them.

In the early ‘80s I visited, and then lived in, England. Sitting in a tiny youth hostel, filled with the smells and smoke of an open fire, I picked up a map of the local area. I noticed a lot of green dotted lines, spread in all directions across the map—like a web. I asked the hostel keeper what they were. It turns out those webs of green lines represented my ‘rights of way’, and they were a key to walking on country. Wherever those green lines ran, I had the right to walk. And I had that right because my ancestors had walked them—sometimes for thousands of years.  

As I looked more closely, this right became more and more extraordinary. I--from a place where private property trumps all other rights—couldn’t quite believe how intimately I was allowed to wander. Because some of those rights of way went through farmyards; down driveways; across private fields and gardens.  In the 20th century, those rights were fading. Because we’d built roads and no longer needed them to walk from the village to the church; from the stone quarry to the grange.  But we need them for our soul! The workers of the cities insisted: our souls will shrivel if we don’t have access to our country. So the right has been retained. My ancestors fought for this…in their own land.

For the next 4 years after that surprising discovery I used every spare moment to walk across my ancestral country. I began to learn its ancient contours and its memories. My soul sang as I walked those paths. I learned to love the spirit and soul of my ancestral roots.

After 4 years I returned to Australia, specifically to Whadjuk country, where I had no ancestral memories. I so missed the ways and paths of my ancestors that I’d left behind in that distant land;  It felt like I didn’t belong here.

It felt like I couldn’t touch, feel, connect with this country. My soul felt lost. I could see the beauty but not truly, deeply feel it. And, even as Nyoongar people began the modern form of welcoming us to country, I couldn’t really feel that welcome. It took 18 years—and something of a pilgrimage—for that to change…

Because something had happened back when I was exploring my ancestral ways in England. I took a meandering 6 week walk from London, in the east to Lands End, in the west. I camped on a farm--on Bodmin Moor--that held the remains of huts and circles of 3000 years of my ancestors. The old, slightly mad Cornish farmer invited me to sit by his fire, and share a meal.  But I refused the invitation; I was shy.

And I regretted that refusal for 18 years.

My regret was confirmed, years later when a Nyoongar Elder I knew—Fred Collard—told me in no uncertain terms “You have to go back. That farmer—he was a messenger. You have to go back and learn what he had to tell you.” Fred also gave me a gift, from his land, that he told me to give to that farmer, on his.

So I went back. I dusted off the Ordnance Survey map for that ancestral country (Bodmin Moor, by the way, is awash with my own culture’s ancient myths and legends) and I went back, knocked on the farmer’s door, and belatedly accepted his invitation. I also, at the urging of another wise friend, sat amongst the stone remains of the 3000-year-old huts, laid down by my ancestors, and asked them to finally release my spirit – to let it return with me to Australia and, particularly, to Whadjuk country.

Somehow, this released me—mind, body; heart, spirit and soul—to this boodjar[1] I now live on. I finally felt ready to truly accept the Welcome. Before that, I think, I couldn’t really feel this country. Finally, now, my soul could hear and absorb the stories of this place, and my ancestors released me to feel, genuinely, welcome.  

This has led me to wonder: Is a key barrier to walking together—at least for some of us—that we haven’t healed the wounds created by being, at a spiritual level, wrenched away from our ancestral homes?  Could this be a reason we’ve found it so hard to understand this land through the eyes of its ancestors and owners?  Have we fully understood the potential power of this welcome that we are offered?  Perhaps—if we do the work that must be done—our ancestors can exchange gifts, make peace and, when peace is finally struck, walk together on this boodjar?


But this Ordnance Survey Map, that guided me to my ancestral memories, also reminds me of an even more important key to walking together. Because I’ve discovered why these maps were first invented…

When the English were fighting, in the 1700s, to brutally dispossess the Scottish highlanders of their lands, they had a problem: the Scots knew the mysterious highlands so well that they used those complex beautiful peaks and valleys as their shield, disappearing into their nooks and crannies, attacking from their outcrops and caves. The English couldn’t compete with such knowledge.  So they invested huge funds and effort on mapping those highlands, and the first Ordnance Survey map was born. These maps—that I so love—were also a heartless tool of dispossession. So as I embrace the soul and spirit and even beauty of my ancestral memories I have to acknowledge, too, the heartless cruelty.

As I accept the welcome; as I accept the invitation to walk on this country together, I must—also—commit to playing my part in healing the wounds wrought through the cruel dispossession. That is also there in the memories of my ancestors. I must not turn away from that. I cannot, if I want my soul to genuinely belong.

Around the time I first refused that old farmer’s invitation, Lilla Watson (an Aboriginal leader) said:  If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let’s work together.

I’m so grateful to be invited to work and walk together. I suspect that, at least at a spiritual level, my liberation depends on it.

Tim Muirhead

Delivered at Danjoo Koorliny summit, 2023

[1] Boodjar = land, and giver of life.

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