Book review: D’harawal

Thank you to Denis Warne for the book review.

We are accustomed to science communication being the depiction of scientific concepts, by the scientific community for an external party. There are, however, instances where it is the conventional scientific community that needs to do the listening. There are also communication lessons to be learnt from ways in which others convey science-related knowledge. Both situations apply in the growing recognition of Aboriginal peoples’ valuable knowledge of the Australian landscape and climate, and the environmental management strategies embedded in their culture.

D’harawal Climate and Natural Resources is a compilation of such knowledge of the D’harawal people. D’harawal country extends south from Sydney Harbour to the Shoalhaven River. The compilation represents methodical research by Frances Bodkin who is both an Aboriginal knowledge holder and a “Western” trained scientist. Her expressed motivation is “proving that the Australian Aboriginal people possess cultures that are … based on the scientific premise of observation and experience, and the results recorded, through stories, in the memories of future generations.” In short, here is a body of scientifically relevant knowledge, spanning a long history. It comprises much more than simple observational facts, extending into effective management and conservation practices. If we let ourselves go there, it also embraces alternative environmental values.

As with seasonal calendars published elsewhere, climate can serve to bridge the cultural gap. Everyone can talk about the weather – it is a tangible common ground that helps make knowledge comprehensible. Bodkin goes further than most calendars. She addresses climatic cycles beyond the annual cycle in some detail. She also delves into subject matter where cultural practice may have lessons for scientific management of the environment.

Four primary cycles are documented: the daily cycle, the annual cycle (comprising six seasons), the Mudong cycle (spanning 11–12 years beginning with “the appearance of the Southern Aurora over D’harawal lands”), and the Garuwanga cycle with four seasons encompassing historical knowledge of long-term climate change – stories which may have significance in this era of climate change. Additionally, of particular interest to those involved in land and biodiversity management, Bodkin describes fire management, through both annual and Mudong cycles, and management of special places such as the Wirrimbirra, or sanctuaries, which played a role in species conservation.

For scientists concerned with the natural world, how can they learn from this body of knowledge which is expressed in ways to which they may be unaccustomed? There are cultural differences. Indigenous knowledge is always in a holistic context, it is not compartmenalised into scientific disciplines, nor even are social implications separated from the science. Bodkin shows us many instances of this and demonstrates how the cultural embodiment provides the means of both knowledge preservation and application of sustainable management practices. The knowledge is not expressed as abstract models but as stories told in appropriate context. Little is numerically expressed – nothing occurs on strict dates but in response to environmental circumstance. If you wished to date the historical sweep of the Garuwanga cycle, the stories would need to be correlated with science from other sources. Clearly effort is required on the part of the scientific audience.

Bodkin’s work like many seasonal calendars has proven popular – it has been discussed on ABC radio, depicted on the Bureau of Meteorology’s Indigenous Knowledge website, and underpinned a major project of Sydney’s VIVID Light festival 2012. For the science communicator, there are lessons to be learnt from the tools of Aboriginal communication of knolwedge: story told in tangible context, cultural integration, and artwork.

The book is short and Lorraine Robertson’s illustrations have made it a work of beauty. However, it can challenge the thinking of both natural scientists and science communicators.


Book details:

D’harawal Climate and Natural Resources
Compiled by Frances Bodkin
Illustrated by Lorraine Robertson
Published 2013 by Envirobook, Sussex Inlet, NSW