Therese Douglas and Ian Hughes, New South Wales Regional Meeting
The Giving River.
Maybe you know the Silverstein fable about the giving tree? The one where the tree tries to be all things to the boy/man/cranky old fart to the point of becoming a dead stump?
Well I sense that’s the fate of the Swan River.
Its active presence has been more than a back drop for AYM.
The river has been a source of contemplation, distraction and renewal during the deliberations and meditations of our days and nights.
For some it’s been a companion to walk alongside or to actively engage with through swimming and even dragon boating!
The Swan has also been a reflection of the conditions around us: choppy, blustery, calm, colourful, pulsating or just peaceful.
The State of the Society address challenged us to reflect on the deeper mysteries underlying all the everyday activities…
The Swan River is the lifeblood of Perth.
But this comes at a cost. Western swamp turtles are now Australia’s most endangered reptile species as their local swamp habitats are dredged for housing developments.
The river is dying. Less rain, higher temperatures and algae growth reduce the oxygen within it. Phosphorus and nitrates combined with sandy soils have led to summer fish kills and the need for artificial pumping of oxygen into the river. But the toxins of the river are now double the maximum levels advised.
Like the giving tree the Swan is in peril due to the demands placed upon it.
But who is listening for the voice of the river?
At Yearly Meeting, sitting in Meeting, I see Derbal Yarragan, the Swan River Estuary, through large glass windows. Aboriginal Elder Noel Nannup tells us a freshwater spring is uncovered each time the salty tide recedes. In English this is called Freshwater Bay. Freshwater flows down from the river and up through the spring. Saltwater comes in with the tide. The waters mix to make a new kind of water. In English it is called brackish. In Yolngu it is called ganma.
Yolngu Elders in Arnhem Land teach that the mixing of freshwater from the land with saltwater from the sea is a powerful metaphor. The forces of the streams combine and lead to deeper understanding and truth. They call this ancient theory ‘ganma’, and have applied it to the meeting of two cultures, where a river of knowledge from the sea (Western knowledge) and a river of knowledge from the land (Indigenous knowledge) engage each other and become one (see ‘Ganma Philosophy’ by Ian Hughes in The Australian Friend July 1993 pp.9-10).
As we sit looking over Freshwater Bay the surface is smooth, deep, unhurried and placid as we imagine our Quaker Meetings should be. A boat makes its way across the surface. Not knowing where it came from or where it is going, we witness a fragment of its journey. Some boats are slow and silent, others cut through the water creating turbulence in their wake.
Below the surface, cool salty tide meeting warmer fresh water flowing down creates turbulence. Here, the turbulence is below the surface, not noticeable; but at other parts of the river the churning of the waters is marked by lines of foam on the surface.
Sandra Hill, of the Noongar people told us, and showed documentary evidence, of violent clashes, stolen children, denial of rights, violence and dispossession. As she spoke I saw spots and crests of foam as if the very waters were giving witness to her testimony. As the setting sun reflected on the water I reflected that the taking of children and imprisonment of adults continues. We have come a long way but the conflict is not yet fully resolved.
In Australian secular Western culture religion is an institution largely separated from everyday life. By contrast, Indigenous cultures have meanings embedded in the landscape, in everyday life and in the continuing creative action of the Dreaming made present in song and ceremony. We Australian Quakers are a peculiar people. Many of us are in touch with the natural world and continuing revelation of science, while at the same time experiencing a mystical unity with our community, with our tradition and increasingly with our country. Maybe we can sit quietly on the edge of Derbal Yarragan and other estuaries appreciating both streams, experiencing clash and conflict in ourselves, holding us and them in a creative light and helping a new spirit, a ganma culture, to emerge.
Conflict was present at this Yearly Meeting. We did not ‘resolve’ all the conflicts but I think we became more aware of the differences among us, of a range of values, and we engaged in collective discernment of ways forward. The process is not complete. There is froth on the surface in some places, and turbulence at deeper levels. I hope the ganma metaphor may help us in working through our personal and organisational conflicts, and in becoming models for the wider cultures of Australia.