After nearly fifty years of existence in Australia, I can finally say that I have an Indigenous friend. Better late than never, I suppose. There were a couple of Aboriginal kids in my primary school, whom I barely spoke to. I was very shy and so were they. I would have liked to know them better, but not enough to do anything about it. My comfort zone was small and heavily fortified.
During the following decades the few Indigenous Australians I have met have rarely shown any interest in communicating with me. Maybe it was because of the guilt that made me try too hard. I have visited Uluru, Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys, bought art, celebrated Survival Day, marched for Sorry Day, drunk wine in parks, shared inebriated kisses, but never before felt the connection I sought with the people who truly belong to this country. And their belonging here is the key, because I genuinely love Australia, though not in a patriotic way. There is certainly nothing to love about our current leaders.
It’s the trees, the flowers, the animals, the breezes, the beaches, the rivers, the deserts, the mountains, the rains, the sun, the stars and the incomparable sky. For me, it’s the most incredibly beautiful country in the world and it is the Indigenous peoples who have shaped the way it is and have been integral to its ecosystems for at leat 60,000 years. I don’t think it’s possible to love this land without loving the custodians who have devoted so many thousands of generations to its care.
It has only been 230 years since the European colonisation of our nation, and in that time we have destroyed nearly 40 percent of its forests, we’ve allocated 43 percent of the land to cattle grazing and we’ve driven 29 species of mammal and 39 plant species to extinction. It has also taken roughly that amount of time for the industrialised world to bring the entire planet to the brink of climate catastrophe. And as we decimated the land, we broke its people and then we ignored them; we killed them and then we took their children away. Our history shames me deeply.
Now that I have an Indigenous friend, the pain is sharper, as I see close up how hard his life is in so many ways. He is 61, and out of twelve younger brothers and sisters, only seven are still alive. Lower average life expectancy never meant as much to me before, but I try to let go of the guilt so that we can just be two people who enjoy each other’s company. Our worlds are very different, but there is much we have in common. We met while protesting together against the continuing destruction of our land for new coal mines. He likes to say, “Country doesn’t belong to me; I belong to Country,” which has long been my favourite quote.
We swim in the ocean, but unlike me, he always knows what’s happening with the tides. We talk about language and animals and plants and I learn many things. I eat the sweet fruit of the pig face plant for the first time and find out the best way to cook a bush turkey (although I’ll probably save that information to use after the apocalypse). I teach him what lip balm and couscous are. I didn’t understand why he wanted to play the pokies until the day he won $500 and paid back all his debts. He has family all over the place, and never stays in one town for long. I’ve travelled all over the world, and now I just want to stay home. He says, “A friend is a friend for life,” and I feel very lucky.