Singing the Land, Signing the Land

A portfolio of exhibits

Sandcrabs and turtle tracks

Sandcrabs and the Turtle tracks; moiety - Yirritja; clan - Maŋgalili; painter - Naminapu White, 1988 ochre on bark, 34 x 86 cm.

This painting symbolises an area of the beach at Djarrakpi; it shows two rows of Ancestral footprints in the centre, while the dotted marks between them are the footmarks of Ancestral dogs that chased a turtle. She had come ashore to lay her eggs (the white dots in the centre) on the beach. On either side of the eggs are sandcrabs with their legs extended towards them. The pattern over the remainder of the painting represents the sandhills (top) and the waves (bottom). The birds in the painting are Gulu-witjpitj, of the seashore.

Two years ago [in 1987], a team of three people – David Wade Chambers, David Turnbull and Helen Watson – began a systematic review of the cross-cultural content of the Deakin University Social Studies of Science course materials. This book is one of several publications resulting from that collaborative scholarship. The group believes that, as a discipline, the 'history and philosophy of science' has been guilty of a high degree of European ethnocentrism. The discipline's traditional view (which sees science as universal in its knowledge claims and socially progressive in its international outreach) has recently begun to fade; nevertheless, this intellectually unsound, and tacitly imperialist, stance still dominates both scholarship and teaching in the field. Without wishing to seem doctrinaire, we see this situation as 'dangerously near the edge', to use Joseph Needham's phrase, in its neglect not only of the great Eastern systems of knowledge but also of other richly elaborated traditional ways of knowing nature (The grand titration, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1969, p. 54). Such neglect is dramatised by the energy which historians of science have lavished on all antecedents of modern European thought, be they medieval or ancient.

In Australia, there is a pressing need to recognise the stature of Aboriginal modes of thought, especially in their approaches to the understanding of nature. In the academic context of the history, philosophy and social studies of science, this must be accomplished in a manner which allows comparison and contrast of a variety of knowledge and belief systems. In this text we analyse the interaction of European and Aboriginal knowledge systems, guided by the spirit of gaṉma, which is elaborated in Exhibit 1. This application of the gaṉma metaphor was first articulated by Helen Watson working as part of the Ganma Research Project at Yirrkala in Arnhemland.

Discussions were also held with representatives of the Deakin University Koori Teacher Education Project, who provided funds to help keep the course development project afloat. Both the Koori Teacher Education Project and the Social Studies of Science course team supported the undertaking, with the aim of ensuring that Aboriginal knowledge receive more substantive and serious treatment in the University curriculum as well as within the general forum of intellectual discussion. It is essential, but more difficult than might be guessed, to present such material in a way deemed useful and appropriate within both cultures.

The research work upon which this text is based was begun in 1986 when Helen Watson was awarded a visiting research fellowship by Deakin University. She continued the work through 1987 and 1988 while employed first as a lecturer in Aboriginal Education in the School of Education, Deakin University, and later with the support of a research fellowship from the University of Melbourne and a further research fellowship from the Deakin Institute for Studies in Education. A grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies to the Council of Yirrkala Community School helped to pay fares for Dr Watson and cover expenses of the Yolngu advisors to the project. The course team acknowledges this support. We also wish to thank several people who read and made substantive and useful comments on this text and other sections of the Imagining nature series: Bruno Latour, Nancy Williams, John Ziman, Barry Butcher and Chris Ryan.

Many of the ideas presented in Singing the land, signing the land relate directly to other books in the Imagining nature series, a list of which may be found on the imprint page. Underlying all of the books in the series is the conviction that the great nature-culture divide is an illusion, one might almost say, a figment of the Western imagination. In attempting to define our place in the world of nature, we deal not with nature on the one hand and culture on the other but rather with many and various cultural constructions of the natural world. This is really to suggest that nature, in the experience of humanity, is not singular but manifold. Understanding nature, in this larger and more intricate sense, involves close knowledge of relevant cultural traditions. This way of knowing nature, then, relies not only on the microscope and dissecting knife, applied to natural artefacts, but also on the conceptual tools of many academic disciplines, applied to the natural wisdom of many peoples. Most importantly, this approach implies accepting other peoples as equal participants in research.

In recent times multicultural societies have become the rule rather than the exception: all of the Americas, Europe, the Soviet Union, China, India and now even Australia. We are constantly reminded of the potential for conflict in such groupings, but they also generate great promise. Engaging with another culture offers the prospect of seeing nature, and the world, afresh by seeing through eyes other than one's own. It is to this end that the Imagining nature books are dedicated .

. . . our most stubborn and pertinacious assumptions are precisely those which remain unconscious and therefore uncritical ... The best and perhaps the only sure way of bringing to light and revivifying these fossilised assumptions, and of destroying their power to cramp and confine, is by subjecting ourselves to the shock of contact with a very alien tradition. Harold Osborne, Aesthetics and art theory, Longmans, London, 1968, p.2

Like the other books in this series, Singing the land, signing the land is conceived and structured not as a linear verbal narrative but as a progression of museum or gallery exhibits designed to exercise the skills of visualisation and visual analysis, so essential to any understanding of the basic theoretical issues of perception and cognition. A portfolio rather than a written text, each book stands alone and may be read without reference to the others. However, the full scope of the argument relating to the cultural dimensions of human perception of the natural environment will become clear only if the books are read in close conjunction.

David Wade Chambers 1989