Based in oral traditions and song poetry , much of which bears a more than forty-thousand-year-old lineage, contemporary Aboriginal Australian poetry is replete with references to the natural world: plants, animals, earth, sky, wind, water, creation beings, ancestors, and living communities of people . In ancient Aboriginal worldviews, the environment is a dynamic, ever-shifting nexus of human and non-human actants (, pp. 106–22)—and one which modern technology increasingly impacts today . Indigenous Australian epistemologies of the environment largely resist the Western categorical distinction between “human”, on the one hand, and “non-human”, on the other. Philosopher Mary Graham describes this condition in terms of relationality between beings: “The sacred web of connections includes not only kinship relations and relations to the land, but also relations to nature and all living things” (, Section “Custodial Ethic toward Land”). Mediated by typographical conventions but retaining traditional storytelling modes , Aboriginal poetry also preserves ecological knowledge, reflects environmental concerns, and lodges ecopolitical critiques of land-related issues, including the disintegration of biocultural heritage.
In Australian literary criticism, Aboriginal poetry has been the subject of scholarly studies and numerous collections [7,8,9], especially since the seminal anthology Inside Black Australia from 1988. Even so, Cooke (, p. 89) observes that research into the oral aspects of Aboriginal writing has been limited historically to the fields of musicology  and anthropology [11,12], rather than literary studies. What is more, weighted toward life writing and fiction, the collection A Companion to Australian Aboriginal Literature, edited by Belinda Wheeler and published in 2013, includes only one chapter devoted to traditional and contemporary poetry through Western critical discourse . Hence, the relative scholarly underemphasis on Aboriginal poetry is broadly evident in Wheeler’s volume and elsewhere. The lacuna, the author argues, also includes ecocritical frameworks that could articulate the pronounced interconnections between environment, culture, and technology in much of the poetry—the subject and intended contribution of this article.
How have contemporary Australian Aboriginal poets responded to the cultural impacts of environmental change and degradation? How have poets addressed the intrusion of technology in ancestral environments or country? How might poets adopt or reject technology for the creative expression of their cultural concerns? Responding in detail to the first two questions but peripherally to the third, this article will develop an ecocritical and technology-based perspective on contemporary Aboriginal poetry through the work of three poet-activists: Jack Davis (1917–2000), Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993), and Lionel Fogarty (born 1958). The cultural perspectives presented by these poets implicate both colonial-era and high modernist technologies in the devastation of country and the disruption of traditional lifeways, including intertwined cultural, spiritual, and ecological practices. As a caveat, the examples from Davis, Noonuccal, and Fogarty are by no means intended to represent the full spectrum and ecocritical possibilities of contemporary Aboriginal poetry. For the sake of narrowing the scope, other prominent voices, such as Kevin Gilbert , Lisa Bellear , and Samuel Wagan Watson , will not figure into this discussion, but their poetry nevertheless offers significant material for ensuing studies through technologically-sensitive ecocritical frameworks.
The approach to Aboriginal poetry developed here will invariably draw attention to the nodes between ecocriticism, philosophy, and technology. It could be asserted that, since the beginnings of the field over twenty-five years ago, ecocritical scholars tend to display an inherently skeptical and prevailingly negative perception of high modernist technology as one of the principal roots of environmental catastrophe (, pp. 51–54), climate change , the commoditization of nature (, pp. 22–24), and even anthropocentrism itself . Jonathan Bordo traces the connection between trauma and the technological sublime, positing what he terms the “incommensurability” between nuclear arms and ecological peril that has become an integral—though, at the same time, a confounding and alienating—dimension of public discourse (, p. 174). On the whole, ecological critics and activists often regard technological over-advancement—and the process of technologization—as inescapably antagonistic to the long-term well-being of bioregions, ecosystems, and nonhuman life (, p. 41). However, contemporary Aboriginal poetry reminds us of the plurality of technology and the actual range of practices included within the term throughout history—from low impact, temporally extensive, and bioculturally sustainable technologies to the high impact, short-term, and ecologically damaging forms of late modernity (a term denoting the pervasiveness of global capitalist societies characterized by information exchange, also described by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman  as liquid modernity).
The analysis of poetry in this article reveals the implicit position taken by the poets that technology constitutes a continuum from pre-settlement to contemporary eras. An example of what I mean by a long-term, pre-settlement Aboriginal technology is the detoxification of the fruits of zamia cycads, such as the burrawang (Macrozamia communis), rendered nutritious through soaking, fermentation, grinding, and other practices. The pineapple-shaped fruit of the burrawang contains seeds that Aboriginal people processed and consumed. In contrast, British colonists referred to burrawang as “fool’s pineapple” for its toxic effects when eaten raw (, p. 50). A more prominent and widespread illustration can be found in the complex systems of fire applied by Aboriginal societies to regenerate the landscape and support the proliferation of vegetable and animal resources [24,25]. In The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage argues that “knowing which plants welcome fire, and when and how much, was critical to managing land. Plants could then be burnt and not burnt in patterns, so that post-fire regeneration could situate and move grazing animals predictably by selectively locating the feed and shelter they prefer” (, p. 1). These examples, of food and fire, are precursors to what theorists today refer to as “sustainable technology” vis-à-vis solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable energies .
2. Song Poetry: From Country to Technology
An appreciation of the conjoined ecological and technological dimensions of Aboriginal poetry involves an understanding of the nuances of the term country. For non-Aboriginal people, the term generally denotes either nation—a region delineated by geopolitical boundaries—or undifferentiated landscape, as in the expression “spending the day in the country” (, p. 7). However, in an Aboriginal sense, country does not neatly align to Anglo-European concepts of nature, wilderness, environment, or pastoral countryside. Instead, the signifier is “multi-dimensional”, consisting inclusively of “people, animals, plants, Dreamings; underground, earth, soils, minerals and waters, surface water, and air”, as well as the sea, shoreline, and sky (, p. 8). The term comprises ancestral homelands, family origins, totemic systems, and other enduring cultural and ecological associations. As a living being involving reciprocal obligations, country is a place of belonging, where Dreaming—or creation—narratives center around the actions of ancestral entities in the form of plants, animals, winds, fire, stars, and the moon (, p. 95). Recognizing its life-sustaining qualities, Deborah Bird Rose characterizes country as a “nourishing terrain”, a sentient and conscious landscape that “gives and receives life” (, p. 7). In relation to her anthropological fieldwork with Aboriginal communities, Rose further elaborates that “country expects its people to maintain its integrity […] to take care of country is to be responsible for that country. And country has an obligation in return—to nourish and sustain its people” (, p. 109). Aboriginal people visit, respect, sing and speak to, feel sorry and long for, and dream and worry about country, in the same way that another human individual or family member would be treated (, p. 7).
The contingent relationship between country and song is fundamental to recognize in the context of poetry. Engendering cultural connections to the land and between human communities, traditional Aboriginal verse—or song poetry—underlies contemporary Aboriginal writing (, p. 92). Song poetry can be described as a “spoken text but also a musical assemblage of various human and nonhuman actors” (, p. 92) and is characterized by metricality in which sung word patterns serve as rhythmic units (, p. 94). The expressions “singing country” and “singing up country” refers to in situ performances of song poetry. Based on extensive research with Yanyuwa families of the Borroloola settlement in the Northern Territory, John Bradley explains that kujika denotes a way of knowing in which singing becomes a mechanism to sustain country and kinship relations (, p. xiii). Kujika is a “most precious repository of knowledge” involving wandayarra or following the song paths overland and through the sea (, p. xiii).
Country and song poetry are crucibles for Aboriginal cultural knowledge. Indigenous technological practices also involve environmental and cultural understandings, particularly of country. Thus, a crucial dimension of my ecocritical triangulation of Aboriginal poetry and country is technology. A principal theme within the poetry of Davis, Noonuccal, and Fogarty is the friction between technology (historicized and conceptualized broadly), country, and traditional lifeways. However, their poetry intimates that not all technologies result in the same environmental and cultural impacts. Since the eighteenth-century European colonization of Australia and, specifically, the arrival of the First Fleet of British vessels at Botany Bay in 1788, diverse technological forms have impacted Aboriginal communities across Australia in myriad ways—both for better and worse. Modern developments—mining operations, tourism infrastructures, and networks of roads, railways, flight paths, and shipping lanes—bear a legacy of fragmenting Indigenous cultural practices, siphoning away resources, and channeling economic benefits from communities to the dominant settler society typically located in urban centers like Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth . In Australia, while the exploitation of mineral resources has been essential to the economy, particularly during the Global Financial Crisis since 2008, the capital derived from country has not been proportionately returned to communities to improve the destitute conditions facing many rural Aboriginal people today. The uneven allocation of land-derived resources underscores the social inequities of technology . In contrast, other technological introductions to country have enhanced traditional practices, such as the hunting of game using cars and communication between family groups through mobile telephony (, pp. 117–24).
For environmentalists, including some Indigenous people, technology refers prevailingly to that of “late capitalism”, a neo-Marxist term denoting capitalism since the end of World War II, marked by high-tech developments and the prevalence of speculative financial capital. In the general view of activists, these forms—mining, damming, monocropping, land clearing, factory farming, and genetic engineering—clash, to greater or lesser extents, with land conservation values and sustainability. Notably in relation to climate change, environmental discourse implicates technology in ecological catastrophe and problematizes the Enlightenment-based ideal of progress through scientific development and the extraction of resources . Many Indigenous rights movements have been galvanized by their opposition to proposed or actual alterations of land, air, and water triggered by technology. A significant historical example from the United States is the Cherokee people’s vehement resistance to the Tellico Reservoir and the flooding of the Little Tennessee Valley—places considered sacred and, thus, central to cultural identity. The construction of a reservoir destroyed irreplaceable heritage and erased the Cherokee archaeological sites of Chota, Tanasi, Toqua, and others (, p. 4). A current instance of Aboriginal Australian activism against the destruction of the sacred sites of country (albeit urbanized in this instance) is the proposed extension of Roe Highway in the city of Perth, Western Australia, across the North Lake and Bibra Lake areas. The Nyoongar people of the metropolitan Perth area regard the lakes as significant songline, or Dreaming, sites and dwelling places of the Creation serpent known as the Waugal—a history that vastly predates British colonization since 1829 .
In examining Aboriginal views of technology as expressed in poetry, it is crucial to conceptualize technology not as a monolithic concept, singularly denoting the dams, highways, computers, and nuclear reactors of late modernity, but as a plurality of practices intrinsic to all cultures and eras. In this regard, philosopher Alan Drengson understands technology as “the systematic organization of techniques and skills, so as to produce some product, by means of reorganizing a raw material or some other appropriate medium” (, p. 30). Importantly for Drengson, technology is not limited to technological products or techniques but comprises four aspects: “technical knowledge and skill; organizational structure; cultural purposes and values; and resource use, raw materials and the environment” (, p. 32).
For Don Ihde, technology amplifies human (and presumably other tool-bearing animals’) relation to and modifications of their environments. While it is a somewhat obvious argument that technologies of the late twentieth century underlie the current environmental crisis (i.e., climate change, species loss, urban pollution, food allocation, energy use), Ihde observes that cultures throughout history employed relatively simple “lo-technologies” to transform the environment in highly deleterious ways, resulting in desertification, deforestation, erosion, and overgrazing. Although hi-tech forms magnify and accelerate processes of anthropogenic change, technology itself is always culturally dependent. Meanwhile, the obvious beneficial effects of technology, such as immunization practices, underscore that modern technologies have “greater amplifactory and magnifactional powers” than their ancient equivalents (, p. 53). The analysis of the consequences of technology, for Ihde, therefore, should consider: “(a) the nature of the various technologies involved; (b) the relation or range of relations to the humans who use (and design or modify or even discard) them; and (c) the cultural context into which ensembles fit and take shape” (, p. 54).
Drengson, Ihde, and other philosophers of technology agree that technology is more than its late modernist incarnations and has been located in cultural values throughout history. Ihde references environmentally catastrophic examples from ancient cultures, as well as the positive and negative consequences of modern technology. What appears largely missing from their positions, however, is a strong enunciation of the beneficial, sustainable, and generative aspects of traditional technologies, specifically those developed and applied by Aboriginal Australian people over millennia. In conjunction with the seasonal movements of Indigenous hunter-gatherers, many “lo-technologies” have enabled people to occupy environmental niches for considerably long time periods without dramatically and permanently exhausting the resources of country .
3. Jack Davis’ Critique of Modern Technologies
Born in 1917 in Perth to parents from the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Jack Davis was a poet, playwright, and Aboriginal rights advocate. His family, including ten brothers and sisters, lived in the rural communities of Lake Clifton, Waroona, and Yarloop outside Perth where Davis developed an attachment to the natural world in his early years. “Much of our childhood was spent in the bush and I learnt to love the wildlife that existed around our home. The path to school passed through a patch of scrub and jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) forest” (, p. 13). During family moves, as recounted in his memoir A Boy’s Life, he would explore “each side of the road for bush tucker such as wild berries and prickly pear fruit […] bush tucker was important because it helped augment the family larder” (, pp. 7, 10). The environment—“lofty redgum and jarrah trees […] a new bird’s nest, swooping magpies and bush animal or reptile tracks across the path through the bush”—figured appreciably into his upbringing in the 1920s and 1930s and subsequently into his creative writing throughout his life (, p. 11).
Davis also relates how his parents told the children traditional Nyoongar stories, such as the Dreaming of karda—the racehorse goanna (Varanus gouldii) whose tail is said to bear the yellow stripes of burns caused by the boomerang of a jealous lover (, pp. 20–21). Stories of whispering trees (, p. 25) and carnivorous fungi that iridesce (, p. 27) as well as firsthand experiences of using balga (Xanthorrhoea preissii) foliage for camping (, p. 76) fostered Davis’ knowledge of the immediate environment and nurtured his imagination with the animistic beliefs of Aboriginal heritage. A mounting respect and awe for the natural world is evident in childhood recollections of a massive jarrah tree as “a real wonder of nature. It took 32 of my boyish steps to circle its sprawling girth. Years of storms had trimmed the growth of its branches, but it reared sixty metres into the blue of the sky” (, p. 82). These memories and their poignant cultural registers would later feature in Davis’ poetry while also invigorating his campaigning for Aboriginal rights.
Davis’ most distinguished works are the poetry collections Jagardoo: Poems from Aboriginal Australia (1977) , The First-born and Other Poems (1983) , and Black Life (1992)  and the plays Kullark (1984)  and No Sugar (1986) , all of which address the challenges of maintaining Aboriginal cultural identity and ensuring basic human rights in modern Australian society. For instance, by offering an Aboriginal outlook on Western Australian settlement, Kullark attempts to refute and counterweigh the entrenched misconceptions of European colonial history that sought to nullify Nyoongar presence. The play dramatizes key events such as the murder of Yagan (1795–1833), the Nyoongar freedom fighter who led campaigns against British settlement in Western Australia but was later decapitated, his body shipped to England and displayed as an exotic curiosity at museums up to the 1960s . Kullark also involves depictions of the Waugal, or Rainbow Serpent of the Nyoongar, as a symbol of Aboriginal cultural rebirth and the deep indigenous history that precedes European arrival (, p. 195).
In addition to his poetic and dramatic writings, Davis became the director of the Aboriginal Advancement Council (AAC) of Western Australia and served as the manager of an Aboriginal community center in Perth in the 1960s and 1970s. The AAC lobbied for the Australian referendum of 1967 (known officially as the Constitution Alteration), forging the path to greater land rights, economic support, and cultural heritage protection for all Aboriginal people. During this time, Davis became active politically in Western Australia as an organizer of, and participant in, public protests and street marches: “Our banners were conspicuous, our views well publicized, and I believe that the firm and consistent pressure we placed upon the government, church bodies and the public conscience brought about a change in attitude” (, p. 159). His activism also included time as a committee member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders Studies and the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, as well as editor of one of the first Aboriginally focused and run magazines Identity, launched in the 1970s (, p. 191). However, while Davis composed a number of poems in response to socio-political events impacting Aboriginal lives, his work on the whole reflects a range of themes, including health, family, and environment. Critic Adam Shoemaker observes that less than one-third of the poems in Davis’ Jagardoo speak to issues of racism, oppression, and dispossession (, p. 191). Therefore, in arguing that Davis is not only a political writer but also an environmental poet, I aim to extend ecocritical approaches to the analysis of his work.
Some of Davis’ poetry examines the devastating impact of modern technology on Nyoongar culture in the heavily forested Southwest corner of the state. This is a region of abundant forest resources, consisting primarily of the large eucalypts, or gum trees, known as jarrah, marri, karri, tingle, and tuart
To the Others
You once smiled a friendly smile,
Said we were kin to one another,
Thus with guile for a short while
Became to me a brother.
Then you swamped my way of gladness,
Took my children from my side,
Snapped shut the law book, oh my sadness
At Yirrakalas’ plea denied.
So, I remember Lake George hills,
The thin stick bones of people.
Sudden death, and greed that kills,
That gave you church and steeple.
I cry again for Warrarra men,
Gone from kith and kind,
And I wondered when I would find a pen
To probe your freckled mind.
I mourned again for the Murray tribe,
Gone too without a trace.
I thought of the soldier’s diatribe,
The smile on the governor’s face.
You murdered me with rope, with gun
The massacre of my enclave,
You buried me deep on McLarty’s run
Flung into a common grave.
You propped me up with Christ, red tape,
Tobacco, grog and fears,
Then disease and lordly rape
Through the brutish years.
Now you primly say you’re justified,
And sing of a nation’s glory,
But I think of a people crucified -
The real Australian story.