Echoes of Aquarius

In early September in August 1972 Johnny Allen and I, two paid organisers for the Australian Union of Students, arrived at Main Arm valley, outside of Mullumbimby in northern NSW, to talk up and find a site for a festival in the region.

We had driven directly from the August conference of AUS in Melbourne where we had won approval for the idea of presenting the 1973 biennial intervarsity arts festival as a kind of counter cultural expo.

For six years the student movement had been protesting war and conscription and we knew what we were against. The 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival was to be a celebration of the possibilities of peace in the bush and far, far away from the campus and city symbols of authority, which we had been for so long in reaction.

The festival was to be in the May and for reasons of warmth, our search was directed northward but not so far north as to cross the border into Belkje land. We had heard of the nascent hippie settlements behind Mullumbimby and the surfie idylls of Byron. We expected interest and maybe sympathy with our project. Out of sense of fraternal respect, and because it was the only address we had, Upper Main Arm was our first port of call.

Cold was our reception at the late Colin Scattergood's house. We seemed to have walked into something at once proto hippie and feudal; hackles were raised and the drawbridge drawn. Yes folks, even then.

It was my first experience with that aspect of the rural counter culture that is about hiding amongst trees in very big back yards; that is about being invisible and anonymous, and growing cannabis to pay the bills and living with the paranoia, social isolation and dysfunction that goes along with all that.

The worldview of we Aquarians was diametrically opposed. One more flood of inspired passion in the perennial traditions of utopians, we were a band of dreamers setting out to build a city on a hill. We aimed to illuminate the counter culture of the times and we had come with the experience years of public place student theatre and protest organising to do it. We wanted not only to be visible to each other, but visible to the world.

Scattergood poured scorn on our proposal and thenceforth badmouthed it at every opportunity. He even travelled all the way to Nimbin to sit in the pub for a day, a self appointed nemesis, to warn the locals. Such are the obstacles facing change makers; the most vexing come from people one expects to be allies.

But the mission to Main Arm was not without fruit. Col scattered some good when he suggested we talk to Paul Joseph who was living in a banana shed, high up a slope in Palm Woods, a recent refugee from Scattergood manor. A man of powerful voice and charisma (he had performed in Harry M Miller's Jesus Christ Star), Paul joined our entourage as song man. Thenceforth all our Nimbin Aquarius planning meetings were rounded off in songs, anthems and the signature benediction: “May the long time sun shine upon you….”

The tribes that organised the Main Arm markets and Moon Dances in that time were more attuned and when we found our site in Nimbin, as a sign of their goodwill, Donny McCormack and friends (formerly of the counter cult band, Nutwood Rug) came to Nimbin with gifts of music and food to support us in our preparations. At the Aquarius Festival Mullumbimby folk set up a big camp and fire circle, and the smile and bright intelligence of the late Nick Shand was luminous there.

The 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival signalled a cultural turning point for Australians. It was an affirmation of peace, a victory celebration for the student movement marking the success of its resistance to the US War on Vietnam and Australia's complicity in it.

Thirty years later Australians are ensnared in US wars again and the question facing the Aquarian pioneers is: did the dream of peace fail? Should we not be celebrating this anniversary and trying to forget our disappointments?

I take the long view and say the work of peace has just begun; that thirty years is a short time for a fig tree, less than a minute of a morning in the life of a forest.

Back in the 1970s, travelling the back roads of the Rainbow Region one could still see the tall stumps of once giant hard woods standing in the cleared cow paddocks, the axed notches of the spring boards still visible, and on top, beyond cow munch, a sapling of a fig tree, sprouting from bird borne seed, and sending down a root. Over years the roots would enwrap the old stump and become great buttresses supporting a huge and many-branched canopy of leaf, fruit and seed. An image of regeneration.

The cultural fruits of the Aquarius Festival and the counter culture it expressed are many. Byron Bay for example became a land of healers, and as the ultimate in lifestyle living, also a land of indecent real estate obsessions.

The legacy that gives me deep joy and satisfaction is the social activism that has taken root and flourished in the Rainbow Region. This culture of activism first revealed its strength at the 1979 Battle of Terania Creek, the first successful defence of rainforest anywhere ever. But there have been many green and social justice campaigns since and its in second generation now. The children of the dream are activists.

In fact activism has become an export industry. From the Rainbow Region came the environmental defence forces, which saw action at Terania near Nimbin, also defended the Daintree forests in far north Queensland and the Chaelundi forests near Coffs Harbour. They shut down the cyanide gold mining operation at Timbarra near Tenterfield and now obstruct the cyanide gold mining project at Lake Cowal in central NSW.

Likewise the activism for social justice that has taken the opposition to the US Drug War from Cullen Street Nimbin, to Lismore and Byron courthouses, to the NSW and federal parliaments, to the gates of all the major jails of NSW, to Sydney for the 2000 Olympix and to the gates of the s11, World Economic Forum in Melbourne in 2000.

A great joy it was for me earlier this year to be far away and see 750 naked Byron ladies clustered in a giant heart, and making peace art on national and international TV.

We Aquarians were not the first to walk the noble peace path of friendliness and artful community building. The Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Gandhi, Mandela and many other cultural heroes have done the same; many are the footprints, all of them rungs for our ladder.

Nor will we be the last. The erring wheel of ignorance, like moisture in a meadow, never can be checked. The greed and tyranny of the rich is ever re-asserting itself with new lies, new cruelties, new weapons, new fears.

Free people ever struggle to build communities of creativity, compassion, and dignity. Pirates, liars and criminals are the field in which we must work. The Tao te Ching says it this way: "What is a good man but a bad man's teacher? What is bad man but a good man's job?"

A new generation faces the challenge of being visible in reinventing peace and democracy. On behalf of all Aquarians, I wish them well. May the fruit of their peace making be abundant for many generations to come.

For the Earth! For the dust!

Graeme Dunstan
Written for the Byron Echo
2 May 2003

Anniversaries are about storytelling and remembering. In a time of war we will be remembering the pathways we Aquarians walked for peace in the 60s and 70s.

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