Harvest festivals and services in England always happen in autumn for obvious reasons. Our ancestors brought in their crops at this time of year after the growing season had ended and before the winter lay ahead. As their descendants, we still like to set aside a particular time to express our gratitude for the natural world we depend on, and the hard labour of those who spend their time working on it so that all of us can eat.
In June, however, I found myself in a country whose native society has very different traditions. (Though ‘found myself’ is perhaps the wrong word. You don’t end up on the other side of the planet without a considerable amount of planning, and sitting on planes, being involved.) Among many things I wanted to see in Australia was Uluru, known to many people as Ayers Rock. It’s one of the great natural wonders of the world, and has been a site of deep spiritual significance for Aboriginal societies for thousands of years.
It’s hard to convey the exact magnitude and strangeness of Uluru, both the site itself and the resort that accompanies it, in words. Bill Bryson once commented that if a visiting extra-terrestrial found himself stranded on Earth and needed to send directions to his friends to come and rescue him, the best way of describing Earth would be “go to the third planet and fly around until you see the big red rock. You can’t miss it”. It dominates the surrounding countryside for miles, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of deep awe when standing beside something so incredibly massive and old.
Yulara, the resort, is strange in an entirely different way. It’s surreal. Uluru sits in the midst of a vast plain, yet, there in the middle of the outback, is enough hotel accommodation to hold several thousand visitors, plus around 900 permanent residents who make their living from the resort. The next sizeable settlement is Alice Springs, over 250 miles away. The only reason for anyone to travel there is to see Uluru and the nearby site of Kata Tjuta, sometimes called the Olgas. Huge numbers of them do – around 250,000 each year.
One admirable feature of the resort is that they do seem to have a genuine commitment to ensuring that the money generated from tourism goes into the local communities. The resort also goes out of its way to show Uluru from the perspective of the local people; its spiritual significance to them, and how they lived before Western colonists arrived.
As part of this, there are regular talks in the “town square” of Yulara by older men and women from the local communities. I heard one partly by chance, having nearly an hour free before my bus to Uluru departed, I settled myself in a small stone circle to listen to an older Anangu man (the Anangu are the local Aboriginal people) talk about how his ancestors kept themselves fed.
It was a remarkable talk. The elder spoke firstly about how the men would go hunting throughout the year, harvesting meat from the local animals. In England, we know that shortly after Harvest comes Halloween and Bonfire Night; the old ceremony of burning the bones of animals who had been slaughtered so that their meat could be preserved throughout the cold winter to come. In Australia, the hunters faced an entirely different challenge.
A good hunter not only had to know how to make his weapons, how to track and find his prey and kill it quickly, but how to get the meat home before it went off in the heat. He would only kill his prey if he was already equipped to dress the carcass, then put it on a carrying stick to be quickly slung over his shoulders and taken home so that it could be cooked before the meat spoiled. Similarly, he had to know how to kill only a few animals in a group without distressing or scaring away the rest, so that the next hunter to come along would find the flock of emus, or huddle of kangaroos, in their usual homes so that he could feed his family.
It’s said that you can learn a huge amount about how a society is structured by how it finds and cooks its food, and the next part of the talk was remarkable for the humour with which the elder tackled an issue which tends to strike those of us from a modern Western culture quite strongly. Traditional Aboriginal cultures have strong divisions between the roles of the sexes, with men and women having separate roles within society and different traditions to be passed down.
The elder explained that a large part of this was due to the need to exploit the land as efficiently as possible, saying “If a woman comes into her kitchen and finds her father preparing grain, she will be shouting ‘Dad, why are you doing that? Get out of my kitchen and go and hunt something for us, go on’.” It simply took so much skill and knowledge to learn how to gather plants or hunt animals, then prepare them to be eaten, that people had to start learning from a very early age. It made sense for the girls to learn from the women, and the boys to learn from the men, and for the strongest people in the tribe to have the responsibility of throwing spears at large prey and carrying them home. Whilst the men hunted large prey, the women used their knowledge of plants and the local landscape to find fruit and vegetables. They would also fish, and trap small birds and lizards to keep their families fed.
As the elder put it “If they try swapping around, father is going to be producing cakes no one can eat, because he doesn’t know how to grind the grain. If mother is going to try throwing six-foot long wooden spears, dinner is going to be hopping away over the hill!” Elders were respected not simply because they were old, but because their age meant that they had stored up a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about how to make sure their family and kin survived in a harsh landscape.
I was struck by how much easier it was to understand a culture from the other side of the world just by thinking about the practicalities of their lives. At the time I was there, Uluru had just experienced a huge rainstorm, and the red earth was covered in green life. Not long before, it had been so dry that the resort staff had occasionally had to chase camels off the lawns. Apparently the camels had learned to bite the hosepipes off the taps and drink the water. Yet the people who lived in this land had survived and thrived in their home. As the elder put it, “Sometimes, the hunter comes home with a kangaroo over his shoulders to be roasted. But sometimes he doesn’t, and then he comes home to a bowlful of bush tomatoes, some cooked fish, and desert figs, all gathered by his wife and his children.”
I’d like to end with a short reading from Cliff Read’s book, “Sacred Earth” – “Invocation for Harvest”:
“Placed here by God and evolution
We give thanks for this garden-planet;
Pledging to till it with wisdom.
And to care for it in humility.
For this we gather, for this we worship.”