Conversation / 6 February 2020

We burn grass when it's properly dry - but what are we gonna do when the whole world fried?

Close-Up: Inflaming

Long before Australia was invaded and colonised by Europeans, fire management techniques — known as  “cultural burns” — were being practised. The cool-burning, knee-high blazes were designed to happen continuously and across the landscape. The fires burn up fuel like kindling and leaf detritus, meaning a natural bushfire has less to devour. Since Australia's fire crisis began last year, calls for better reintegration of this technique have grown louder. 

Gary Nunn, “Australian fires: Aboriginal planners say bush needs to burn”. BBC News January 12, 2020

The Mermaids, The Karrabing Film Collective

January 8, 2020 

Belyuen, Northern Territory, Australia

Elizabeth A. Povinelli: So lots of down south mob now saying they should have listened to Indigenous ways of caring for country, burning it properly.

Sandra Yarrowin: Yeah, old people taught us to burn grass when its properly dry, like not any time, but only when it’s the right time for that place.

Natasha Bigfoot Lewis: How they put it, knockdown grass, aye?

SY: Yeah when that grass im knock down.

EAP: I remember some like Agnes Lippo saying when that grass back is broke. But people not knowing this area probably don’t know what we’re meaning because they don’t know our kind of grass.

Lorraine Lane: Well how we put it. We have our grass, that tall yurru (Emmi; English, Mnesithea rottboellioides and Sorghum intrans) and not that Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus). It grows maybe high as head, starting in rain season and it finish sometime when dry season starting, maybe March, April. (See The Jealous One, 2017.) Then it dries out, and when wind picks up, it kind of bends into really thickest matt, like can’t see through it. That when we burn it.


NBL: Light that merrapen leaf (Emmi; English, Livistonia humilis, sand palm) and drag it along the grass so fire runs itself. We sign out to that fire too, aye, Makali (mother’s mother)?

SY: Yeah you should sing out to the fire, like this, “wrrrrrr wrrrrr wrrrrr” so it listens and runs! Then it cleans up the bush properly so we can see to hunt and that new grass can grow when rain starts.

NBL: But that gamba grass is different. It’s not from here. Where’d it come from? Somewhere from Africa; biggest mob in Queensland. It burns too hot and big. Our grass only burns those trees white ants already ate, those dead trees, but gamba grass it burns live trees and bushes. That’s why those Kenbi and other rangers spray-kill that grass wherever they can find it.

EAP: Also kills us differently, aye? We scared of our grass, like of fire from our grass? 

SY, NBL, LL, Debora Sing: No.

EAP: Yeah, right. I remember that time that those old women, Betty Bilawag and Ruby Yarrowin sent me into the thick grass hot sun to look for kangaroo, with my old shotgun. I was like, why, no kangaroo gonna be here in the hot sun. Next minute I saw stuff falling from the sky and mental me I thought snow. Then I thought this not snow this ash. Sure enough they’d lit the grass. So I started running and thought what they’d told me, so found little patch clear and took all them bullets into my belly as crouched down and ooooooooo oooooo and fire whoof passed right over me. I been singed but that all.

SY: Those old people were like that. Always testing whether you were listening to them, what they told you about how to survive. Too tough. But that true. Only problem if that grass was never burnt for long time and that little patch not big enough for smoke. Like when you, sis, and Over and Gigi (Rex Edmunds and Cecilia Lewis) and those others made that road at Mabaluk. Nobody was there for that many hundred years. So ancestors punish with too much burning smoke. But you mob made a fire break; no gamba grass there too.

NBL: Another thing is that no rain, not much, no proper monsoon. Diamond Creek is bone dry. Have you old people ever seen that before.

EAP, SY, LL: No.

DS: So what we suppose to do when no rain, different grass. What we do when world change?

Cameron Bianamu: Yeah, what about that? And mining too; fracking. New world. (See, The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland, 2018.)

SY: Yeah, it’s new. Changed. Climate change. But we know what we should be doing. And we should keep trying to do it. You got to listen to that country, too. 

EAP: I saw those old people study country. Like what it’s trying to say.

SY: That’s right. You can’t be ngamana (deaf). You mob know that if you don’t pay attention to that country, or dreaming (durlg, Batjemahl; therrawin, Emmi; totem, English) im die

EAP: Die?

SY: Not die-die. 

NBL: It cover itself up. Go underground. Still there but can’t show itself. So then no animal, rain, whatever. Country gets jealous like people. Ancestors too. You don’t sweeten them up, visit, you know, and they get jealous and punish you. “Punish im, punish im!” (Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams, 2016). That’s what happening now, I think. Like country punishing everyone for what only those some people did.

Lyrics for Julia Stone’s cover of Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning.

We burn grass when im properly dry.

What you gonna do when the whole world fried?

Try try talk la wuliya (to all of them)

They don’t listen

They don’t listen

Try try talk la wuliya

They don’t listen

They don’t listen

Water raided

Bush im graded

Animals faded

What you gonna do when your beds are burning?

Cameron Bianamu, Claudette Gordon, Lorraine Lane, Natasha Bigfoot Lewis, Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Quinton Shields, Deborah Sing, Sandra Yarrowin.

Video credit: Julia Stone - 'Beds Are Burning' - Songs For Australia. Beds Are Burning' is taken from the album 'Songs For Australia'; an extraordinary album made by a collection of artists from around the world who have each donated their time to record a cover of an Australian song. The album was made to raise money for organisations in Australia who are working towards creating a better future for the country and helping to rebuild during and after the bushfire crisis.


The Karrabing Film Collective

The Karrabing Film Collective, based in Australia’s Indigenous Northern Territories, uses filmmaking and installation as a form of grassroots resistance and self-organization. The collective includes approximately 30 members—predominantly living in the Belyuen community—who together create films, art and installations using an “improvisational realism” that opens a space beyond binaries of the fictional and the documentary, the past and the present. Meaning “low tide” in the Emmiyengal language, karrabing refers to a form of collectivity outside of government-imposed strictures of clanship or land ownership. Shot on handheld cameras and phones, most of Karrabing’s films dramatize and satirize the daily scenarios and obstacles that collective members face in their various interactions with corporate and state entities. Composing webs of nonlinear narratives that touch on cultural memory, place, and ancestry by freely jumping in time and place, Karrabing exposes and intervenes into the longstanding facets of colonial violence that impact members directly, such as environmental devastation, land restrictions, and economic exploitation. The Karrabing Film Collective has presented its work at IMA Brisbane; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Institut fur Auslandsbeziehungen, Berlin; Jakarta Biennale; Centre Pompidou, Paris; e-flux, New York; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; Tate Modern, London; Documenta 14, Kassel; the Melbourne International Film Festival; Berlinale, Forum Expanded; and Biennale of Sydney; MoMA-PS1, and International Film Festival Rotterdam, among others.