“Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.”
~ Henry David Thoreau
Clearly, there’s a lot of emphasis on Old Craft, Old Ways, and in this series of posts, the Ancient Languages and Spirituality of Indigenous Australians. Oddly enough, so much of it, for myself, would not have come about except for the very contemporary medium of the internet. I read a lot, and am ever encouraged by how much is being shared online by a diversity of people. And engaging with those communities has been a real blessing in terms of my own continued learning and deepening spiritual experience. Even here on my humble blog, in this series of posts one can peruse the comment threads to see many an interesting thought from the writer of Under the Tree, posting as ‘Tree Girl’, who is of both Aboriginal and European ancestry living in Sydney, NSW. So I say “warami” to her, and thank you. Part of my inspiration for this series was thanks to her honest and revealing writing of the nature of searching for divinity and deep spiritual practice that makes sense to the fabric of who we are as individuals, which is often many things that might otherwise seem greatly juxtaposed as contemporary Australians. Her poem on dadirri – silent awareness helped me further connect with that concept. And I would direct readers to her post finding Mary, which speaks to her coming to terms with her own personal family history and contextualising same in terms of realising her own divinity. Such work should serve to encourage us all to be creative, and truly recognise ourselves as unique emanations of the Divine. To forge forward into new ways of expression paying homage to the many threads of our ancestry.
Another inspiration has been Uncle Paul Chapman, artist and storyteller of the Wakka Wakka and Kabbi Kabbi nations in SE Queensland, now living with his lovely wife, Dawn, in Victoria. I would never have bumped into Uncle Paul, or been exposed to his vibrant artwork if not for the internet. Of course, now, we’ve completely spilled over into long email exchanges, and out from the computer screen and into even longer conversations on the phone (that simply don’t happen often enough!). Between Uncle Paul and Dawn there’s a great amount of insight, and they share a wonderfully cheeky sense of humour. Dawn speaks of the revelation of Aboriginal Spirituality and world-view as a white woman, through both her professional and academic work and her relationships learning from many different nations particularly in the north of the country. Whilst Uncle Paul’s stories remain deeply anchored in the Dreaming, and his own learning and experience as a child of the Lore, of his Country. I know sooner rather than later I’m going to have to get myself on the Mainland, to pull up a rug around the fire with Uncle Paul.
One of the things that pops up a lot in our conversations is Uncle Paul’s phrase “the sight to see”. It seems simple enough, but underpinning it is a very complex idea. One that speaks directly to the problem of appropriation, which stems from a failure to understand the premise of Aboriginal Spirituality. Simply put, one can not use what one does not understand, and certainly shouldn’t. At the core of much of what we might, on the outside, term Aboriginal Spirituality is something vastly different to the internal process of European practices. ‘The Sight’ is a term often used in various pagan circles to describe the ability to perceive a veiled spiritual truth or presence. There’s an element here in Uncle Paul’s wisdom that shifts the focus. And it’s something I wanted to talk about in this series of posts. So I asked Uncle Paul to help me out. Thankfully, he said yes.
A Conversation with Uncle Paul Chapman
My questions are in italics. “Uncle Paul’s answers are in quotation.”
“The Sight” is a term that is often used by pagan people to describe an ability to see spiritual truths, or subtle powers in the world. When you talk about the sight, are you referring to this sort of “vision”?
“Spiritual Truths exist within in all natural forms – in all life – to see outwards is to see everything. When people have the sight to see then the subtle powers within the infinite connections of all living beings and their relationship to the Creator are visible to them. Whereas, to go, or look inwards is what we call thought, we are going inside our body. From here then the power of memory is created and Creation is brought inside us. Then we are using the inside of our body, thought, to remember everything, everything outside of us. There is no remembrance in Nature. The sight to see is a camera, and we can remember that there, and that there, and then though and memory are like uploading those pictures into the internal space of ourselves, bringing Creation inside us. So to see spiritual truths or subtle powers, the truth of the world we live today, our spirit from inside has to come out and see the world and its power. And that gives our spirit power. To be inside always, you become trapped, then you create the illusion of spirit and of its true power in the world. My ancestors here in Australia, like all ancestors in the world, were always looking outwards, then bringing it inside. People can be born with this gift; others develop it through the teachings; and, some will only ever see and experience what is before them not seeing the subtle powers.”
In the context of the more common use of the term by pagan and witches, what is seen by those possessed of “the sight” is hidden, an invisible presence that ordinary vision can not perceive. Can you talk about what you “see”? Is it a hidden “thing” that ordinary vision can not perceive, or something else?
“Our ancestors here and ancestors of Pagans and Witches from overseas, they all lived outdoors instead of being indoors all of the time. They were out there with the elements of nature and being touched by these elements, so to see outwards you see further into how life has begun. So my people know how it is today compared. To be always indoors you become insular. Never being touched by the elements, you won’t know reality, the true knowing, the true existence and being able to be a part of life and with life. Outside it is revealing itself to you each and every day. If you go out, become a part of life itself, you will then have the sight to see everything, see deeper into this relationship, it will show you its journey of itself.”
What do you think is the significant factor in describing this Sight? What makes Aboriginal Spirituality different to what many white Australians do/practice?
“It is Earth focused. And that is true of my people, and the ancestors of white people. Some pagan people are still practicing those things and they will have true wisdom. It is where science is born. But today man is using those practices and that wisdom from overseas to help them create artificial things from the elements, and to have the power of the all of the minerals that were known to the Indigenous people here. They are using this knowledge, not for wisdom, but for wealth, to the death of the belief systems of the ancients’, knowledge of how life came into being from the minerals, that came into life being powered by the elements. When the elements and nature are used in this way they change from the life cycle into the death cycle and thereby become contributors to the destruction of our Mother.”
Aboriginal Spirituality is often describe as an oral tradition, being passed down by stories told generation to generation. How significant do you think the visual experience of the landscape is to your storytelling?
“The visual landscape is so important that without it the stories would be lost. The visual, Nature, is telling the stories to the oral; of the power, of the mechanics of that power of the elements, how they combine to create, to bring creation into being. The eyes see, the sight understands the creativeness, how the elements bring this all into being. Our stories are the telling of that vision of our landscapes. The stories of my people are the true stories of the elements.
Not so long ago, my partner and I were discussing the difficulties involved in transcribing the oral into the written. We were watching on SBSNITV, and a blackfella was sitting in his country telling a story. If this story was written it would not have made any sense because the story belonged to the landscape and everything in it and around it. The story only made sense because the camera could show where the storyteller was and what the country was like, thus provide us with a visual reference for the story. When the stories were told to me as a boy in my country where I was born and raised, we needed to go into country, away from our camp. When writing our stories we need to take the reader into country by creating a mind map – a visual reference for them too, to experience the landscape and in doing so gain a deeper understanding of Aboriginal Spirituality and lore. ”
In your paintings, the “Bird Dreaming” series, you speak to colour, describing them in terms of “auras” each colour speaking to an individual realm, sky, land, water etc., and Wisdom. How significant is colour to your story telling? Do you think these sorts of considerations can be applied more generally in terms of understanding the subtle and spiritual natures of our environments?
“My people first spoke from the sight of colour. From here as our people evolved in wisdom, it gave deeper meanings, and in the different dialects for all of my people. Colour can become like the guide to one’s personality to how they feel and how they think. Colour tells us so much. And how everything connects together, to where and how everything belongs and exists in harmony with each other and what is happening in the different stages of life. To see colour brings one’s spirit out from inside to rejoice and to touch the true essence of what colour has to teach to each and every one of us.”
How do you recommend a person develop their sight to see in terms of the Australian Landscape?
“To teach oneself to always look outwards and not go inwards.
To spend as much time outdoors and in the bush as possible.
To observe the movements, seasons, changes and patterns of nature.
To spend time in the bush with a learned person – a person who has the sight to see.”
You’ve spoken about the visual nature of learning as a child, the Dreaming stories of your people “by creating drawings on the earth with charcoal, ash, leaves, flowers, small stones and sticks in the daylight hours.” As people wanting to connect with our Land, how significant would such a practice be? Can we engage in this sort of communication with Land, as offering of our own stories?
“The best for people to do right now, today, is to draw on the earth. And the reason is: When was the last time people put their feet or hands on the ground and got them dirty? When was the last time that people actually looked closely at the dirt which is usually covered or overlooked by everything else in the landscape? By actually drawing on the ground in bare feet, it takes you back into the land and introduces you back into the land. When someone is teaching you or showing you something you feel a connection because you have your feet and hands in the dirt, it brings your spirit out and your spirit wants to learn right there and then.
Life is a continuous flow so yes the stories of the people living on the land today are as relevant as the stories of our ancestors. The dreaming continues as does life itself.”
Light and colour are clearly important aspect of your work. Can you talk about the significance of painting only in the daylight hours?
“Our Creator gave us daylight to see, and darkness or soft moonlight at night time to put us to sleep. I paint when the sun rises until the sun falls because its against our lore to draw things in the dark when the light has gone.
At night the water rises and forms life. If you draw at night time the water influences the shapes that you are drawing on the ground and therefore you are interfering with the deliverance of the seed of life, because it can be described as the delivery of a different spiritual aspect in the making of life. The water gives a different shape and different aspect to what you are actually drawing on the ground. Drawing at night stains the earth with tear drops from our mother which you have helped her to create.
When you draw on the ground in the daytime it is about your dreaming and if you don’t erase it before dark then your dreaming comes alive and changes your life by becoming part of the now. For the next day, it becomes a form whereby the flow of life is stemmed as life itself is born around it. In this way, the dynamics and movement of life is changed.”
What’s your best advice to someone wanting to connect with the Spirits and Wisdom of the Australian Landscape?
“To connect spiritually with this country, it is essential in the first instance, to have the sight to see the language of symbolism of the elements, colour, earth, flora and fauna.
For anyone wanting to be part of our spiritual connection and wisdom of land and waters there are two things one must know:
First, that the internal sight of thought can separate them from nature and gives them the wrong mentality. That “yeah, yeah I know about that” and “yeah I’ve heard that story”. Nature and dreaming are always changing.
Secondly, having and living with the power of the sight to see comes from the spirit that wants to reach out and touch nature and the elements, and wants to become part of nature and the earth and everything in it and around it. The power of spirit is driving the person to have the sight to see and be connected to all that is there.
It is important to know this. In our modern life today we can be living in a city or anywhere for that matter, and we walk past each other without acknowledging each other, without any gesture whatsoever. We can’t see each other any more. If we do look to observe someone, they may come from overseas or they are Aboriginal etc., we decide to acknowledge someone, mostly we pick and choose who, where, how and why we need to acknowledge a person. We do the same with Landscape, people too often pick and choose between one or another aspect of the landscape, and it will not give them an understanding or spiritual connection.
If you go out and experience the spirituality and wisdom in the Australian Landscape first-hand, if you have the sight to see, you will start to experience it and everything will be revealed in truth. If you pick and choose it will only give you an idea about the spirit of this place, and you will not become a true part of it. You will always remain separate from it.
The true difference between the sight to see and the sight of thought is that to have the sight to see your questions are answered and your spirit is learned. We ask questions when we, our spirit, returns indoors and is no longer in nature. When a person only has the sight of thought that person will ask so many questions. When a person with the sight to see looks across to a person with the sight of thought they see someone who asks too many questions and it is so obvious to them that the person is analysing and taking mental notes about everything rather than accepting the true nature of things just as they are. They are not participating they are extracting information and turning it something it isn’t, an illusion.
Like a game of whispers, the sight of thought can change each time it is passed on to another person who also relies on the sight of thought for their understanding of life, the universe and everything. In contrast, if we talk with people who have the sight to see they will all tell the same story.”
Bringing Theory to Practice
There’s just so much there. Most important for me, in my practice, is the idea that the wisdom of our Land, can only truly be accessed when seen in the context of the environment and nature entirely. The idea we can take an isolated thing and know it, without understanding its role and interaction with everything else around it, in an ecosystem, a landscape, in the whole, is a false one. This is something particularly pertinent to me, working with Australian Native Flora and Fauna. From my experience, working within the Land that I can actually be in, and live in, seems to me to be the commonality between my European animism, and Uncle Paul’s direction.
And what direction! I know I will be augmenting my practice communing with Land. Going out and writing my prayers with the stones and leaves and twigs of the Land itself, in the dirt. Coming into an awareness of how other things interact in Nature. I might ask, what is the message, the Wisdom of this plant, this specimen, but how important is it for us to look at how other lives in Nature interacted with it, and have in themselves, to discover the wholeness of that Wisdom.
I know that many of us, and this is certainly true for myself, we can become deeply immerses in the computer screen, the pages of a book. This a very timely teaching to remember to look up and out, get outdoors and garner an understanding from experience and find the Wisdom inherent in the Natural world. The Natural world, without which the internal processes and thought has little context or meaning.
Currently, Uncle Paul is in the process of writing down his stories, and the stories of his people. And I look forward to being able to experience the Wisdom there. You can also see more of his art and work here, at Bundaiyan. And I thank him again for taking the time to answer my questions, and sharing with my readers.
I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Land and her Ancient Lore and Stories, their ancestors, past and present, of Hobart, the Mouheneener tribe; the Land on which I was born, beside the River they call Tucoerah, the Cabrogal Clan of the Dharug Nation and peoples of the Dhurawal and Dharuk Nations; and Uncle Paul’s Countries, the Wakka Wakka & Kabbi Kabbi peoples of SE QLD, and the Koori Nations of Victoria, where Uncle Paul now lives.
This post is the fourth in a series titled Two Worlds.
Click here to read the first: Two Worlds: Utopia
Click here to read the second: Two World: Just Listen
Click here to read the third: Two Worlds: kunanyi / Mt Wellington
Click here to read the fifth: Two Worlds: Tales from the Rainbow Track – Part 1
Click here to read the sixth: Two Worlds: Tales from the Rainbow Track – Part 2
P.S. ‘L’ is for ‘Look’. This post participates with The Pagan Blog Project 2014.