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The morning came, not gently like the sunrise should and has done in this place for more years than I know how to speak. The earth shook, and the racket from the birds as they rose into the air simply added to our abrupt awakening. 

We sat up in our swags.

Drilling noises had started a short distance away and the earth flinched, the same as I do when visiting the doctor or the dentist; when needles are mentioned. It isn’t fear, rather the idea of the invasion… something foreign and violent into my body. 

We understood that those who were drilling wanted to get the work done before the heat arrived to cover this place and make moving too hard. They were sinking wells for water for us – as if we didn’t know where the water was – and while it would be convenient and it would make living here in this modern age easier than what it was in the past, it was for their sensibilities that they sunk those wells. 

Not ours.

It was like the little tubs of water now left at the travel stops along the main road. At every stop, plastic ice cream tubs empty of their sweet treat and metal dog drinking bowls, carefully filled with water, and small rocks to stop the tubs tipping over, populated the space at the foot of taps and water tanks. 

Little tubs of water, for the birds apparently. 

The dogs are fine to keep their bowls because the birds truly don’t need them. The birds, like us, know where the water is found and are living because of that knowledge, practiced for generations… but it makes others feel good and more comfortable. Perhaps it made others feel they are contributing, or maybe they are compensating for something. I think those little shrines of water are placed as they are out of fear and guilt and a need to have control over a physical environment they do not understand. Others don’t know this place and cannot imagine how people lived here for so long and so well; that Aboriginal communities thrived for thousands of years; that terra nullius really reflects the ignorant outward gaze of a Eurocentric imagining and not an Aboriginal reality. 

As a nation, we continue to ignore what terra nullius tells us about the ability of newer Australians to understand this place and to know how to live here in ways that accept the hospitality and kinship of the non-human, or to understand the complexity of Aboriginal cognitive functionality. I see my family judged as lacking deep thinking because of their lack of English language. I see no cognisance of the implications of the inability to speak an Australian language (1), of new Australians to realise the depth and breadth of decisions, rules, lores and laws in Aboriginal living that protect and ensure the good, safe, clean, and healthy earth necessary to sustain all living. The vital nature of the kind of thinking that reflects a non-human centre is too big, too different an idea for newer Australians to understand because it requires living through an entangled relationality with all entities, not merely the human self but mostly it requires understanding that knowledge exists outside of Western notions, definitions, concepts and certainty, buildings and books.

My Country was made with the birthing of three water women who then travelled far from their oceanic womb. They travelled and as they did, they danced, ever making ever dancing, singing up Country and dancing us Gudanji into being. When they arrived at a place where their depth of sorrow and homesickness for that far off and left behind birthplace was too much, they danced some more. Through their dancing and singing, they called up their kin and at that place they taught us to call Garranjini, those birth waters came to re-member and reclaim a relationship because water never forgets – the giving of life. 

Back then, those who advocate for us had already approved, among other things, for the drilling before the Australian government gave us back our land. We didn’t understand that – ‘gave’ us back our land. My aunt scoffed at the idea that our place could be given to, or by anyone. She was stressed to see that others felt the resources of our place belonged only to this current generation and she worried at the lack of wisdom in protecting the rights of future generations both human and non-human. It is where we belong, where we grew as a people, the place that had grown us through our practice of an unflinchingly pragmatic arrangement of kin relationships lived for thousands of years in a transactional nurturing. Our living is always through a back-and-forth gifting and sacrificing – that is why it is our place; because of the responsibility and obligation we have, also given during the creation. 

Now, years later, there is more drilling we don’t want. We neither need nor give permission, but those who advocate for us, again, provisionally facilitated it. This time, the drilling is significantly more dangerous and yes, it is about water again. But this time the consequences are potentially more dire. As water gives life, it too can take it.

Fracking on the Beetaloo Basin has its moments in and out of the media, presented in various guises good, bad and ugly. I assumed that people understood something of the fracking process and that if they don’t, they are curious enough to google it. Didn’t we all at least hear something about Erin Brockovich in the near past and wonder what the fuss was about? 

According to the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Science and Resources site (2), hydraulic fracking is part of the Beetaloo Strategic Basin Plan. The site outlines a seemingly innocuous and straight forward hydraulic fracking process that, ‘injects a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the rock’. The schematic is the largest item on the page carefully showing a neat and tidy placement of two wells, one for shale and one for water. The blurb continues below the image to suggest that shale resources and groundwater are separated by natural rock formations that ‘makes it highly unlikely that there will be any movement of the petroleum resource into groundwater systems’. The next page of the Plan opens with how big the potential is for the ‘best gas resources’ and of course, the hook for us all at this stage in our economically difficult living, we are told that Beetaloo could create ‘thousands of jobs and drive significant economic growth in the NT’. Some of the challenges that ‘could prevent us realising its fullest potential’ are outlined as well and, layered in at the bottom, is the challenge of ‘ensuring local communities and Traditional Owners can realise the benefits of development’ (3).  It is a somewhat arrogant imagining and extension of that earlier mentioned position of terra nullius framed thinking, placing Aboriginal people in need of ‘development’.

My family, Gudanji mob, are under no illusion that as Traditional Owners, we alone can stop this, despite a range of official documents stating we have the right to veto any process that we consider damaging and wrong for us and our Country. That right is articulated somewhere with the statement of intent to conduct consultations with such communities. We continue to see our exclusion from processes when we say no to other intrusive activities on our place and the lands of our neighbours. We see that when we say ‘no’ to others, it mostly means someone tosses more money on the table, sometimes literally – the ethics of this process are deadly and bloody. We are called political activists when we insist on practicing our traditional cultural responsibility and basic human rights to maintain a healthy Country. We know that those ‘benefits’ as identified by the Australian government, our right to veto and our right to be consulted equate to those ice cream tubs, and dog bowls of water left to make others feel comfortable. 

Karen Barad, an American theorist who works in theoretical particle physics, and whose work I used in my Ph.D research developed the theory of agential realism. In their book, Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007)(4), they explain agential realism as a way of thinking that allows us to understand the world through intra-acting agency where phenomena emerge through relationality, and not separation.  Their ideas identify the entangled nature of what surrounds us and our interactions with such environments. Interestingly, Barad tells us that we ‘cut’ and ‘separate’ only to spend time in developing an understanding of our entangled living, our connections, and relationships. They remind us of moral relativism, and the danger of thinking and discussions that treat aspects of human and in this case, Aboriginal knowledge, as false and wrong. If we critique hydraulic fracking through a lens of agential realism, the danger of marginalising Aboriginal knowledge highlights the ongoing nature of that erroneous and outward-looking ignorant gaze of Eurocentric terra nullius thinking. Most problematic, we ignore the ancient scientific knowledge contained in the songlines, supported by thousands of years of lived experience (a significant way of data gathering and research methodology).

For thousands of years, specific Gudanji scientific knowledge was and continues to be located within songlines, sung, and maintained through careful living with and through entangled relationships with all kin. Songlines run across Australia and create a network of knowledge relationships that show us the best ways to live in respectful, sustainable, and healthy processes. Songlines tell us that water has many faces and exists in as many conditions, but water is all connected and related. An Aboriginal Elder recently told me that from her perspective, the songlines are like arteries across the body of Country.

New Australian science, that which has arrived here from other places and shores, does not yet have this familiarity because of the different ways in which that new taxonomy is understood and organised. New Australian science knows that water exists in aquifers and other sites but the implications of the relationality between water-kinds, its kin and other entities are often not present in a fuller, more whole articulation reflecting Aboriginal ways of meaning making – we ‘cut’ and ‘separate’ because agential realism is still a new concept and where siloed imagining supports the individual becoming expert. This thinking is fundamentally core to the work of the academy but in this approach, we see the giving of responsibility and obligation to a few. Australian scientific knowledge exists through a more than 60,000-year tradition where everyone is responsible and is not merely something that started to live here since the arrival of books and universities. Our songlines remind us of and show us all that Barad tries to teach the world through her notions of agential realism, entanglement and the ontological inseparability of intra-acting agencies and components.

Recently, with the extreme weather that is becoming more common, the Gulf country of the Northern Territory endured significant flooding of towns, communities, homelands, and mines. These mines have pits which store sullied water. We have not yet heard what happened to this water during the floods, and perhaps we will not. Perhaps the economic benefit is more significant than the risk of what sullied water may cause in such a relatively small and isolated geographic location, with such a small human population; perhaps economic gain is more important than consideration for our non-human kin on land, in the air or in the water ways. However, we know what happens when that water escapes because our knowledge has always existed through processes of agential realism, entanglement and the ontological inseparability of intra-acting agencies and components. One politician told me that sacrifices must be made, and I recalled a line of poetry by W.H. Auden telling us, ‘Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.’ (5)

So, what is the next offering for my family and Country, when those chemicals escape and run into the water and earth with their toxic elements? When the water is no longer able to be contained in the Beetaloo and runs as water has want to do. When the water is no longer able to sustain life and when it is too late to listen to the songline knowledge, what then? 

(1)  Jaky Troy, a Ngarigu woman and academic refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands languages as Australian Languages.



(4) Barad, K.M. (2007) Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum Physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

(5) First things first, published in The New Yorker, March 9, 1957 issue.