Dreaming under the Nimbin Rocks
A report on the Honorable Elders camp,
held under the Nimbin Rocks, 16-19 May 2008
How to say the power of the first Honorable Elders Camp,16-19 May 2008, for truly I am challenged for words.
It was an event small in numbers, never more than 25 in the camp at any one time, usually dispersed and ever changing. The meetings were many and various and when words came, they came with astonishing force and clarity.
Ever overlooked by and under the witness of the Nimbin Rocks, the presence of the ancestors came as an overwhelming sense of imminence and astonishing natural beauty, ever changing, ever vivid, ever awesome.
All photos unless otherwise acknowledged courtesy Thorsten Jones, Nmbngee
Our camp was in the pecan orchard under Cathedral Rock, the biggest of the Nimbin Rocks. The Rainbow Chai Tent with its comforts, colours and flags was set up there like a splendid medieval pavilion set up for a gathering of nobles on the estate of some great lord. That romantic.
There were many camp fires including a sacred fire and a cooking fire and always smoke hung amongst the bare branches and the pecan autumn leaves, sometimes gloriously slanted by the sunlight.
My Peacebus.com contribution was to dress the camp with gurri green flags and lanterns so we had bright colour by day and soft light by night.
The weather was, for most parts, fine - balmy sunny days, brisk nights and morning mists, which burned away in the morning sun to reveal Cathedral Rock glowing in the morning light.
Late Saturday afternoon an electrical storm swept in from the west, the storm clouds swirling above our heads and above the Nimbin Rocks like a wave curling in on itself and about break.
Lightning cracking and no one seeking shelter or avoidance from this elemental blessing. Everyone standing up alive, faces to the heavens, astonished and exalted.
Then as the rain front approached, the setting sun illuminated the cloud and rain from beneath and we were illuminated by golden light. For a suspended time, maybe a minute but who cares, when we turned about in wonder and saw that light in the pecan trees, in our faces, in our eyes and in our very air.
Then the rain crashed in and swept by. We moved for shelter then, dodging drips in the leaky Chai Tent. But within 30 minutes the skies were clear, stars appeared, moon rising over a thunderhead now far away over the Pacific Ocean near Byron Bay.
If ever we needed an auspicious sign from the ancestors and the elements of earth, fire, water and air that we were on the right track with our efforts creating the Honorable Elders Camp, here it was lighting up the sky filling our beings with wonder and awe.
The Honorable Elders Camp was hosted by Auntie Vivian Laurie-King and Uncle Cec Roberts, elders of the Wybul of the Bundjalung and effectively custodians of the Nimbin Rocks property on behalf of the Ngulingah Land Council.
The Camp was convened by me as an event to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival, the festival that planted so many fruitful seeds of cultural change and for which I had been one of the principle organisers.
In particular the Honorable Elders Camp was a commemoration of the welcome to country given to the Aquarians by the late Uncle Dick Donnelly all those years ago.
The Aquarius Festival was produced by the Australian Union of Students which was a strong supporter of the Land Rights movement of those times and so Festival had gone out of its way to engage aboriginal peoples locally and nationally.
As far as I am aware the 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival was the first 20th century Australian arts festival to have such a practice of cultural inclusion and as far as I am aware that welcome to country, a ceremony to standard civic practice in Australia, was the first ever.
But more important still the Camp was convened to propagate the Honorable Eldership teaching which Auntie Maureen Watson, had shared with Graeme at the Eldership camp fire circle at Djambung Gardens during the Aquarius commemorations five years previous.
Maureen Watson was a far travelled story teller and promoter of Aboriginal culture. She more than any other built the Murri bridge to the Woodford Festival and paved the way for the subsequent founding of The Dreaming Festival on that site.
Three of her sons now live in Nimbin and during the 2003 Aquarius commemorations I learned she was in town and invited her to the Culture Camp fire which my Culture Lab friends and I had set up in Djanbung Gardens. We had advertised a discussion circle on eldership and we asked her to share her ideas.
Eldership was on her mind, she said. She told us that she had been devastated when made aware of the extent of child abuse in Aboriginal communities for it had thrown into question all she had worked to promote.
She ad been asked for a response and she reflected long and deep before she came back with the concept of honorable eldership.
She believed that honorable eldership was the missing factor.
By this she seemed to mean both the absence of wise and honorable elders who by their example and by their witness hold the ground of culture and keep safe the children's fire.
And she also meant the intention to be remembered and regarded as an honorable elder in the future. Abuse of children was, by definition, incompatible with any aspiration to be remembered honorably.
To this end she carried in handbag a bunch of A4 honorable eldership pledge forms which she had had printed up so that one could sign up on the spot.
Written pledges have little appeal for me but the teaching went deep none the less. I realised i had been given a gift most precious. Just what this 60 year old, grey haired Aquarian elder was seeking.
Subsequently I heard Auntie Maureen Watson had suffered a stroke and was in care on Stradbroke Island, deprived of her power of speech.
Out of gratitude and respect I resolved to spread her teaching, best i could. My idea was to create some kind of self perpetuating cultural form to carry the teaching through generations to come.
We can speculate that there once were time honored ceremonies of initiation and affirmation of honorable elders but obliterated now by the murder and disease of white settlement and the enthusiastic cultural erasure of the Christian missionaries.
We can speculate too that tis was true for Celts and indeed all stable cultures.
Gone they may be now. But not gone forever, I say, because the memories are in the living Rocks and the Earth itself and by invoking the help and guidance of the ancestors they can be brought forth again.
Just takes courage, good intention, effort, patience, humility and faith.
To my mind there seems to be three ingredients to honorable eldership: intention, commitment and witness.
First there had to be the intention to be an honorable elder; next there needed to be a commitment to the practice in speech and deed of behaving honorably; and that commitment needs the witness of friends, uplifting friends who can see us and will watch us walk our talk.
Signing a pledge is one way of doing this. Sitting on the Earth at a fire with a circle of friends is another and the latter much more powerful and authentic.
The aim of the Honorable Elders camp was an exploration in search of such a cultural form.
It seems to me that all people have a yearning for the sacred but the fear of disappointment and ridicule keeps them doubting and cynical and so invitations to create sacred ceremony are either scorned as presumption or dismissed as bullshit.
So the announcement of the Honorable Elders Camp was received with skepticism. Indeed I was accused of ego tripping by a close friend who didn't seem to be able to hear that the propagation of Auntie Maureen Watson's teaching was at the core of it.
"Your just celebrating yourself as an honorable elder," he said.
"May be one becomes an honorable elder by organising an honorable elders camp," I countered.
I was happy to declare publicly my intention of being remembered as an honorable elder on this 35th anniversary of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival.
But I am convinced teaching transmission happens at a subtle level too. Promoting an Honorable Eldership Camp had the effect of promoting discussion and inquiry about honorable eldership and personal reflection too.
I had the sense that because of this discussion the lads who do the dealing in and around the Nimbin Museum (may gurris) were seeing me with respectful eyes.
The rear of the Museum in the territory of the Bayles boys, Johnny, Michael and more recently Phillip who serves at the kiosk there. These are all sons of Auntie Maureen Watson, all delighted that i was honoring Maureen's teaching.
Both Michael and Phillip attended the Camp and put in positive energy. It was if in this honoring of her as a teacher and a mother, we were all lifting our games.
But my credibility as an elder shot up when I undertook to get the access road to the Rocks pecan forest fixed before the Camp and achieved this, a job that had needed doing for 10 years, within four days of confirming agreement from Cec and Viv.
The key to this was a loan of $2500 given by my fellow Aquarian and founder of the Thursday Island tea tree oil enterprise, Christopher Dean, in response to my telephoned request.
In taking on this loan, Christopher asked nothing other than it be repaid without hassle. To repay the loan i sought commitments from both Cec and Roy to support me in organising fund raising events at the back of the Nimbin Museum where a fire pit and stage have been built.
Both backed the idea enthusiastically and, by taking responsibility and making commitments, our relationships with each other and the Rocks wove closer.
Only four 1973 Aquarians took up the challenge to attend the camp and Aboriginal elders were fewer. Custodian Uncle Cecil Roberts gave the camp his blessings and attended daily.
Auntie Viv Laurie-King also gave the camp her blessings and formally opened it on the Saturday morning. She bade us hold hands in a circle around the fire and stand silent.
Afterwards she regaled us with a wild girls story of her first meeting with the hippies on Tuntable, a party by the creek in which Viv and her gurri girl friends shared the 'guni of pig's blood' (cask of red wine) they were carrying with the hippies and they their 'yandi' (cannabis) with the girls. Quite a party, she recalled.
Viv did not choose to spend a lot of time in the Camp and by far the most important Bundjalung present was Roy Gordon, a 35 year old from Bayugil. Roy was in residence the whole camp with his two young children, 4 years and 2 years.
By taking responsibility for camp maintenance (organising a crew to fetch fire wood with truck and chain saw, for example) and serving as its shaman, Roy actively made the camp: calling circles, telling stories and making magic. More of this later.
For the rest it was a serendipitous mob, people of different ages and interests gathered by chance. But is there truly any chance?
A young musician named, Ryko, a resident of the Blue Mountains whom I met while preparing for the Katoomba Cyanide Watch. Ryko is a young man on spirit quest whose path had taken him from high flying corporate lawyer to burned out admin worker on a remote aboriginal community to leading exponent of experimental music.
He flourished at the camp, appointing himself keeper of the fires, not only keeping them stoked but also lighting them up with his philosophy and conversation.
Another fireside philosopher was revealed in a Kiwi former solo sailor, named Matt there with his 9 year old daughter willowy blonde haired, blue eyed daughter, Maha, who loved to romp with Roy's babies and swing from the centre pole of the Rainbow Chai tent / circus tent. Matt gave me a small book of his poems which blew me away.
Vernon Treweeke, founder of psychedelic art in Sydney, Aquarian elder and initiator of the Nimbin murals, was there bearing a video camera for the movie makers from the Woodstock Museum, Nathan Koenig and Shelli Lipton.
Benny Zable was there helping Michael in the Chai tent.
So too was Billy 'BuggaUp' Snow, the anti tobacco advertising activist famous from the 70s, and being just as judgmental about tobacco and alcohol use, 'colonising drugs' he said. His van and mobile home carried the message: "Make the Booze Barons pay."
There was a dark faced prophet named Jai and many who came and went.
The oddest to participate were a young Korean couple, dancers they said with little English and big smiles. They had hitch hiked down from the Gold Coast having found information about the Camp and my mobile number on the web. Total serendipity.
The Rocks property also has its long term friends and these gathered for the Camp. Such were Jack and his partner Mirim who regularly help out there. The reason for the park like appearance of the pecan orchard is that Jack regularly works pulling thistle and woody weeds.
And also present were Binnah and Johnny Chai both of whom had produced other events there: Binnah, the ill fated 1993 Nimbin Mardi Grass and Johnny Chai, the very successful art camps of 2005 and 2006.
On Friday night a young woman, a former dancer with the Nunukal Kunjeel, sat at a fire and, speaking eloquently and with great passion and insight, entertained all for some hours.
But probably the most anticipated and best attended presentation was from Mark McMurtry on the Saturday morning. Michael is a part Aboriginal man from Kempsey way who has been researching the question of aboriginal sovereignty and the jurisdiction of white fella law in the land.
He has concluded that Australian law has no legal basis whatsoever. Furthermore he suggests that Australian government some time ago put aside money due to Aboriginal folk which held as a secret or forgotten trust fund accumulating interest is worth trillions today. Hidden treasure!
McMurtry is a charismatic and entertaining speaker and if he was selling Jesus he would be traveling with a big tent and be heard all over the radio. People come away from his talks like converts to a new faith, about to enter a new freedom and with the promise of monetary reward somewhere along the line.
But I'm an old man, who has heard similar raves come and go before, and so I was skeptical.
At best McMurty describes how the foundations of the law are as void as any other form, yet another illustration of the Heart Sutra: form is emptiness, emptiness is form. This might lead to wisdom and caution in investing too much substance and faith in any abstract form.
At worst it is a discovery which can only lead to a legal challenge before some court or other. Will judges in such courts allow the foundations of their legal traditions to be denied? Unlikely. The edifices of the law are mighty and they are invested with thick walls, bars, locks, much cruelty and formidable careers.
To me McMurtry, buoyed up by the attention his words and demeanor command, appeared to be blowing a lot of wind and wasting a lot of time. That's his choice and the choice of his listeners.
If had my druthers, I would have said that his subject was inappropriate to a Honorable Elders Camp where the focus would be better directed inward to one's spiritual journey rather than outwards to abstract speculations about law.
But the point was I didn't have my druthers. McMurtry was in the area, people wanted to hear him and Michael Jak, proprietor of the Rainbow Chai Tent, had invited him.
McMurtry drew his own audience, made a big impression and was a major presence. Another plum in the pudding mix as far as I was concerned.
We were all feeling our way in creating the Honorable Elders Camp. There was no map and I was committed to surrendering to whatever arose.
The Camp was supposed to begin on Friday with a welcome to country at the 'sacred fire' the cardinal points of which was I had marked with flags and lanterns. Viv, Cec and Roy had all agreed this was the way to begin.
But Auntie Viv didn't show. Seems she went to Nimbin village in the afternoon of Friday and came back drunk and went to sleep. I went into Nimbin seeking her and inadvertantly invited here daughters to come to the camp.
They were drunk then and proceeded to get drunker and more raucous in the Chai Tent later much to the discomfort of the others trying to sleep there. Myself I heard nothing of it for I had surrendered to sleep and to the fact that the Camp would have no formal start till the next day. Or when ever.
I don't claim to be any expert on the Aboriginal mind and the making and breaking of agreements is ever fraught. Keeping my word is a deeply ingrained part of my protestant upbringing and so when clear agreements are broken without any notice or even comment, I am left in a limbo land.
Years of experience has taught me to be patient kooris. Something else will come. The agreement will be honored but in a different time frame and maybe with different fulfillment.
So it was that Auntie Viv delivered her welcome the next morning with Cec and me sitting beside her and me feeling a deep love and compassion for her, as if she was a long time sister of mine.
The experience left me tentative and ambivalent about organising anything more. So I suggested to Roy that if we wanted to get a circle happening on Honorable Eldership later that day, best he call it together. He didn't. More ambivalence.
So Saturday flowed about conversations about the various fires. No central focus.
Roy's camp was behind the Chai Tent and he moved in a couple of abandoned lounges to give his many gurri visitors comfort. Maybe it was too close to the Chai Tent because some folks missed the subtle territorial boundaries.
Roy had cause to complain that his family space was being invaded, and in the case of one particular woman who had just arrived and was gushing enthusiasm about his children, he gave a loud and abusive dressing down, reducing her to tears.
On Sunday morning Roy came to my camp which was collecting grey haired Aquarians and said he wanted to get things happening. He didn't understand or know anything about the Aquarian connection and wanted to find out more.
He suggested a circle at 4 pm that day. I agreed and suggested a morning circle as well, at 11 am, in effect the one I had promised on Honorable Eldership at Auntie Viv's welcoming the day before.
Roy agreed and i said i would rally the camp for both meetings, the 11 am one at the 'sacred fire'. Roy also undertook to collect fire wood which he did rounding up a gang, a truck and a chain saw and soon he had a great pile beside the 'sacred fire' which he was now calling 'Graeme's fire'.
But come 11 am when I called the camp to come to the 'sacred fire", I discovered the ground of our agreement had shifted. Roy, i quickly came to realise after my initial confusion, was now convening that circle and it was taking place in the Chai Tent.
My questions aimed at clarifying the shift were taken as resistance and Roy suddenly became haughty and agitated. When I gathered people top the Chai Tent, there was some tension in the air. But not from me for confused as i was I wasn't contesting.
Once we had everyone assembled Roy began to speak. It was an inspired, stream of consciousness rant, part exposition of his feelings, eloquent and moving when he spoke of his love for his children, wondrous when he spoke of his near death experiences, uncomfortable when he started blaming.
He was up on his feet, moving about the Chai tent and gesticulating as he spoke.
Amongst other things he spoke of "all fire being sacred - fire is life" but in truth I don't recall much of what he said, I was sitting enthralled by the physicality of his performance.
Like everyone else present I was struggling to find meaning in what he was saying or where he was coming from and where his rant was going. It was part dumping but more it was a high powered exposition of Roy's heart-mind.
Roy went back to his fire when the words came to an end and the rest of us we left open mouthed and dazed. "Like I have been bombed," I said.
All through his performance i could smell plastic burning and I assumed it was some packaging or other put on one of the fires but didn't want to shift my attention from Roy to investigate, so engrossed was i.
When he had finished I looked about and there was my top of the line, high back, Coleman folding chair burning, the fabric reduced to black blobs of flaming nylon that dripped from the steel frame.
This chair was the most comfortable in the Camp, the one i offered out of courtesy and kindness to the old and the frail and the chair I claimed for my own comfort and referred to mockingly as 'my throne'.
Seems the end of a nylon flag which I had hung on the chair to dry into the fire had been blown into the fire, acted as a wick and ignited the chair.
"Roy, your words have burned down my throne," I exclaimed.
No sense of loss or disappointment in this, rather a sense of exhilaration to have such a lesson in humility and surrender and be a witness to the shamanic powers of Roy, my friend and collaborator in this Camp.
Roy left the circle and but left us with a sense respect and reverence that was to serve as the container in which we opened up our dialogue about honorable eldership.
I led from there and invited everyone to speak. I suggested a form for the dialogue: first talk about disappointments and hurts in regard to eldership in our past lives; then talk about dreams and aspirations for how it might be in the future.
Even this much structure was too much for my friends, and it was ignored by all except me.
I spoke of by disappointment with elders in my youth. Where were they? Not visible to me in my times of dire need. When I burned out, something activists invariably do, I recalled going to visit my father in bottom line despair, all about my dreams in tatters.
He would berated me for wasting my life and the opportunities I had been given with a university education, Duntroon and all. He liked to rub salt into my wounds but he never asked or made any attempt to understand the work i was choosing to do instead.
As a result i had to learn to look after myself, learn to recover from burn out, and avoid it by pacing myself and watching my mind and moods closely. But most importantly I learned to take responsibility for nurturing my own inner fire with patience and kindness.
No wasting time with "Poor me!" voices! Rather I learned to set about at once to light my fire again, from the embers, from scratch if needs be. This teaching and this skill has made me resourceful, independent of action, independent of consensus, tribe and class, a lover of solitude, fearless and hopeless.
I realised that all makers and mover of culture suffer similar trials, troubles and despairs in their journeys and learned this lesson. In truth this was a teaching from the ancestors.
Sitting in that circle friends I also spoke of my hopes and dreams: to set a good example for the young activist culture makers of these times who standing up and organising for peace, justice and a sustaining Earth.
In their hands rests the well being of future generations. All strength to their arms, all courage to their hearts.
I want to stand beside them on the front lines of their blockades up against the police lines. I want to be visible to them, my courage their courage, their courage mine.
For as long as there is breath in this body and fire in this belly.
Words to this effect I said to that circle of friends, so grateful for their witness that tears came. Open hearted they listened. And blessed me.
Dear Jackie Garland also wept and spoke her gratitude. Once a hippie chick sylph during 1970s Nimbin Aquarian days, ever present when the magic was happening, "Auntie Jak" to many a child including my own, and now living alone, a Brunswick Heads crone.
"Thank you, Graeme," she said. "Thank you for the wonderful things you have done over the years. I admire you so much. You just keep keeping on."
Other people spoke their hearts in that circle and were received in the same grace.
And that little dose of grace was plenty satisfaction for me.
Come 4 pm I called the camp to the sacred fire and handed it over to Roy. No trouble rallying this circle, all were eager to hear a story from Roy.
He took us for a short walk up the hill towards Cathedral Rock so that we could see over the pecan trees and across the Nimbin valley to the north, Blue Knob and Sphinx Rock, the valley view of Cathedral Rock in effect.
With his two wee children beside him, he sat on the grass and we sat about either side gazing out over the grandeur of the Nimbin valley in the tender light of afternoon.
He explained the landscape to us pointing to the features and telling of their meaning.
He asked we not tell others; this an oral tradition to be passed by Bundjalung. Fine with me.
My heart was happy just to be there under Nimbin Rocks with a man whose connection to the land goes back tens of thousands of years plus, hearing a story of landscape while immersed in it, inside and outside.
My association with Nimbin was now more than 35 years old and the web of stories keeps growing richer.
So this is my story of the first Honorable Elders Camp.
May it be the first of many. The first of many stories, the first of many camps.
I reckon the key to going deep with friends is in the sharing of camp fires.
But anywhere were two or more people gather about a fire and talk of their hopes and dreams for honorable eldership is an Honorable Elders Camp in session.
And do not doubt that when you stand on the Earth and invoke the ancestors, their presence and the witness will be with you. It's in the rocks and in the groaning branch; it's in the stars and in the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink.
Remember: Intention, commitment, witness.
Show up now. Sign up now.
All praise to Auntie Maureen Watson for giving us this teaching.
May all beings be happy hearted.
1 June 2008
Hello- This is Obang. Do you remember the couple from South Korea?
I and my boyfriend Young-min joined the Elders camp under Nimbin Rocks. I was╩so╩happy to meet you and the other people.
I really appreciate your warm welcome and giving us a chance to go to such a sacred place
and we had a great time there - like dreaming.
I read your article a couple of weeks ago and wanted to write you an email
but busy with my mid-semester exams and assignments.
It was very impressive that Roy brought us to the Rocks and told us their aboriginal story.
He said we should collect our knowledge.
I really agree╩that it's time to collect our experience and knowledge and take collective action. I realized again that we are all related.
I think it was a cosmic message that we meet together. Like serendipity.. hehe
yeah, as you wrote, I spoke little English but big smile, (Actually had a lot of things to talk),
but I believe we can communicate whether through language or through feelings.
I've read your story in your website. It was just an inspiration.
Because since I was young, my parents has always get involved in society.
There was a democracy movement in Korea 1970-80's.
It was the age that soldier became a president by force of arms, without vote, goverment killed many citizens who resisted it and my mother and father were university student, and my mother was in the very front line of the movement.
She wrote a mail to Amnesty and delivered a public speech in the plaza, threw a fire bomb (made of bottle) to the American Embassy, and went to jail for a few months.
My father made a documentary about that movement and about friends who was killed by military. He also recorded a song and distributed tapes secretly to the people.
Yeah so I think it came naturally for me to have a kind of social sense.
But rather than radical action like my parent's generation,
I am more interested in peaceful and festival mode and creative everday movement.
I graduated alternative high school in Korea and really interested in alternative life and people who express themselves and make a voice to the society.
I have many friends who share common interests and we've conducted few alternative festivals and it's in the make.
I can be just a traveler or study abroad student from Korea in here Australia,
but I want to get involved to making the world more loving, more justice and peaceful place to be.
Anyway, yesterday I just found out that there is a rally in Byron Bay this Friday and I just decided to go there!
Because it's not just Australian issue, it is also Korean issue and every other country's issue and my issue.
There is no peace without justice - I want to walk with the beautiful people and╩express my mind.
See you there !
Obang attached the following photos: