The Spring Winds – as they always do – trigger new beginnings.
My name is Jilda Andrews and I am the newly appointed ‘audience advocate’ for the National Museum’s new environmental history gallery, known so far as Life in Australia. My background is within the Museum’s Learning Services and Community Outreach team, developing and facilitating public programs that help non-traditional museum audiences gain access to the Museum. I am thrilled to join the Life in Australia team as an audience advocate, to be a part of the machinations of developing a brand new permanent gallery, and to work creatively with the team — the communities, organisations, families and individuals we meet along the way, not only as collaborators, but as core audiences themselves to the new gallery.
The stories which we will be exploring and the pathways we will be following are unique to our experience of ‘life in Australia’, and central to this, I believe, is the concept of ‘Country’. This concept is part of my Indigenous heritage (being a Yuwaalaraay woman of north-west New South Wales), but I believe its core to be universal to anyone who walks the tracks, follows the tides and feels the winds of this Southern Land.
The first community consultations for this project were held in Yuin country of the New South Wales south coast, around the area of Eden. I hope to have captured something of the essence of this Country, at an important time for the region: when migratory whales are passing southwards down the Australian east coast, calves in tow, on their way back to the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. Our springtime visit coincided with Eden’s whale festival, a celebration of the region’s seasonal pathways in action. To investigate this uniquely Australian intersection of place, people and pathways, our team took the cue of the Spring Winds and travelled to Eden to meet a community of custodians in charge of an amazing legacy.
The coastline of New South Wales’ Sapphire Coast is picturesque and annotated with lively stories of people and animal migrations, as well as shipwrecks, squatters and the odd rogue. It is also dependable for whale sightings on their migration up and down the east coast, whether through glimpses of water puffs amidst the vast blue or if you are lucky, demonstrations of aerodynamic showmanship, as in the photograph above. Almost as dependable is the Eden whale festival, which is now in its 20th year — an event that brings together yarns, songs, skills and dynasties connected to this pathway of migratory magic.
The Yuin people of the mountains and the sea have been walking the tracks of Australia’s south-east coast since time immemorial. Their reach is impressive, and their connections today to both each other and the land is evoked continuously whilst in the company of Yuin elder, Uncle Ossie Cruse, and while on the land of the Eden Local Aboriginal Land Council at Jigamy Farm. Through the stewardship of the Yuin, we are introduced to Eden’s well-worn tracks, and the nature of their contemporary custodianship. The Bundian Way, one of these ancient tracks, which connects Eden’s coast to the high country of Kosciuszko, is currently being recognised and acknowledged as a site or pathway of great historical and cultural significance. Through works like John Blay’s book On Track: Searching out the Bundian Way, there is also the promise that Australia’s landscape holds one of the keys to national unity, reconciliation and a future of cultural custodianship deeply rooted in land. Through his thoughts, reflections and stories over this weekend, Uncle Ossie would prove time and time again that the custodial future of this beautiful patch of land would be guided by its custodial past, and like the seasons, would join, and continue on again.
Like the dynastic reach of Uncle Ossie and his extended family, there is another family in Eden which continues to define the character, strength, and tenacity of the town’s colourful history. The Davidsons are thoroughly enmeshed in Eden’s history from its foundations as a settlement established to service the properties of the pioneer and entrepreneur Ben Boyd in the 1840s, through to provision of fuel services to the town of Eden today! It is their unique collaboration with pods of killer whales, which elicits the wonder and imagination of townsfolk and visitors alike, and it is this story of human relationships with the land, environments, migratory pathways and each other, which beckoned us down to Eden on the last weekend of October.
The Davidson family operated a whaling station in Eden from the 1850s and operations included both the hunting and the processing of blubber from baleen whales to manufacture whale oil as fuel for lamps and lanterns. The baleen of these animals was also used for hairbrushes, and whalebone stiffly structuring clothes of the era. The success of the Davidsons’ outfit was in part owed to a fascinating relationship the family and crewmen had with local pods of killer whales, which unlike the other whales passing through, were not migratory. Over the Davidsons’ one hundred year whaling practice, three pods of killer whales — each known by name, and respected as almost part of the crew, would round up, alert and shepherd in whales to the skilled and waiting six-man whaling boats, then harpooned. Slaughtered whales would be towed into Davidsons’ whaling station on Twofold Bay, where their blubber would be removed in sheets called ‘blankets’, sliced and then boiled down in a succession of large metal cauldron-like vats (try pots). At this point, it would cool and eventually distill into oil, ready to be casked and shipped across the world; the lamps lining the paved streets of the world’s cities would be illuminated by this arduous, pungent, intense and laborious work. In the moment between the harpooned whale’s death and its butchering, the shepherding killer whales would be left to feast on the lips and the tongue of the whale in what the Davidsons would observe as ‘the law of the tongue’.
Thought to be a remarkable tale for its human-animal cooperation, the Davidsons today are adamant to talk of the added cooperation of their family with local Aboriginal people in the success of this practice — where they often recall that their forebears offered equal wages and equal conditions. Aboriginal contributions to the whaling industry are celebrated in many evocations of this fascinating story, and the consideration of individual killer whales as reincarnations of the spirits of significant ancestors adds to its complexity as a story of more than a working partnership between man and beast, but of continuing cultural (and inter-cultural) systems. This period of Australia’s history coincides with the moving of Aboriginal people into reserves on Wallaga Lake further north of Eden and Lake Tyers in the Gippsland region of Victoria. The interaction between the Davidsons and the local Aboriginal people occurred in complicated times and within a much broader context of black and white interdependence within the pastoral and agricultural industries.
Eden’s Killer Whale Museum stands proudly as testament to this period of Eden and Australia’s history. It highlights these cross-cultural stories, and investigates the collaborative relationship between humans, animals and their natural environments. The Museum houses the full skeleton of the last of the Eden killer whales, ‘Old Tom’, whose death signalled the end of not only collaboration and friendship, but also the whaling industry in Eden. Knowing this, and reflecting upon the many books, photographs and accounts of Eden’s whaling past, patriarch George Davidson’s weatherbeaten expression of steely determination seems softened somehow. Perhaps he foresaw the changing time, made ominous by his ageing crew and a changing world, one less dependent on whale oil. In a sense, the disbanding of the formidable alliance between man and animal was to release him back into the fragility of humankind. What could that have felt like? What is it like to have known the greater strength of a partnership such as this? Perhaps the Davidsons and the Yuin people will be the only ones who will ever know.
Eden in spring has given me a sense of the power of people, place and pathways that underscore the Life in Australia project. The connections we made with the people and country of Eden have each in their own way illuminated different approaches to custodianship of stories like these — not as competing or contending for legitimacy. These are complicated, fascinating and wonderful stories, and characterise the local, regional and seasonal nuances of ‘life in Australia’.
Top image: humpback whale in Twofold Bay, October 2016, by Thomas Williams, Flickr Creative Commons