This is a bit of a riff on what I’ve been up to over the past few months…and what will keep me busy for a few more months yet…

This is a not-so-short update on the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island bird knowledge project I’ve been working on for – well, years now.

My initial interest in this topic was prompted by spending time with Aboriginal people soon after I moved to the Top End of the NT in the mid-eighties – it was soon apparent to me that Aboriginal people had a wealth of knowledge about the birds that they hunted and ate and celebrated in dance, song and art and that forms a rich thread running through their mythology, traditions and culture.

Fifteen years, a law degree and a temporary move to the south coast of NSW later I finally got to attend the post-grad certificate course at Charles Sturt University at the Thurgoona campus at Albury. There I asked lecturer, course coordinator and general all-round great guy Dr Dave Watson if he might have some thoughts about what to do about the apparent lack of appreciation of the knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal birdknowledge by ‘mainstream’ (for want of a better term) birdwatchers and ornithologists.

Dave’s answer was short and sweet – “Well Bob, if no-one else has done it you’d better do it yourself!”. Little did I know what lay in store by my simple response that I’d do my best!

A telling fact that drove my interest in the early nineties was that the most substantial single source of Aboriginal bird knowledge in the mainstream ornithological literature was John Gould’s “Handbook to The Birds of Australia”, published in 1865. I’ve not been able to find a replacement candidate as the primary source – and much of the information contained therein was collected by one of Gould’s collectors, John Gilbert, who was taken from us too soon in 1845 while on a cross-country expedition with Ludwig Leichhardt.

Anyway, eight years on from Dave’s wise words I’m getting closer to producing my attempt at an overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bird knowledge in a single volume. CSIRO Publishing will publish the book (with a tentaive and somewhat boring working title of “Australian Aboriginal Bird Knowledge”) in mid to late 2010 – dependent upon when I get the finished work to them.

One thing I do note is that it will not, indeed cannot, be a complete compendium of such knowledge – that would take more time and many more volumes than I have time for. But what I do hope is that it will start a broader interest and enquiry about local bird knowledge among the many distinct language groups and cultural blocs around the country – particularly in light of the growing importance of Aboriginal land management in many part of Australia.

I’ve spent a large part of the last five years (at least) collecting the literature – mainly from many hours in dusty (and not so dusty) libraries across Australia and across the globe (I’ve found some great works in libraries in Cambridge, Cape Town, Arkansas and New Orleans, to name a few), and have a stack – literally – of secondary research material.

What has occupied a large part of my time this year is organising and doing what I think will be the most important part of the book – travelling around the country talking to any Aboriginal person or group with an interest in taking part in my project. So far I’ve done a few trips up and down the NT – into the southern fringes of Arnhem Land – where I lived for a while in the eighties and nineties, around and to the west of Katherine and up and down the Stuart Highway.

I’ve also been into the east Kimberleys, South Australia (twice) and have just returned home here to Yuendumu (300 kilometres n-w of Alice Springs) from my latest trip that took me through eastern South Australia, coastal Victoria, southern and north-western NSW and central and western Queensland – a total of about 10,000 km.

In a week or so I’ll take off up the Tanami Track via Balgo and surrounds, then back into the eastern Kimberley, across to Broome and then down to the Pilbara – then back along that same route – that should take me the best part of a month.

After a week or so at home I’m planning a route that will take me up the Stuart Highway to just south of Katherine, where I’ll take the Central Arnhem Road via Wugularr, Bulman, Gapuwiyak to the heartlands of Yolngu culture around n-e Arnhem land. Then I hope to travel across through to Raminging and Maningrida in central Arnhem Land then back through Kakadu to Oenpelli and Jabiru. Depending on time and inclination I’ll either swing towards Darwin or south via katherine and the Barkly, eventually ending up here at Yuendumu for a few days.

By then it should be sometime in early November and I’ll turn my wheels eastward – if I’m lucky with time and weather I’d like to travel back into Queensland via the Plenty Highway – so much shorter, but rougher – than travelling via Tennant Creek and the Barkly) to Boulia – then back through s-w Queensland towards n-w NSW – eventually ending up in Walgett where I hope to spend some time again with the Dhariwaa Elders Group.

Then to the Australasian Ornithological Conference in Armidale in late November and early December. Then back through coastal northern NSW, up the coast to (about) Townsville then back across the NT and home.

That will be just about all of the field trips for this year – I have a couple of trips – by air – to Tasmania via Melbourne (to catch up on the excellent resources in the several libraries there) and then in mid- January hopefully to be in the Torres Strait islands about the same time that Dr Rohan Clarke from Monash Uni will be doing some field work there. And I may have a short road trip down to western South Australia and another up to the Gulf country.

And then – sitting down for a couple of months and putting it all together into some sort of shape that people – will want to read – and hopefully and more importantly – buy.

Finally, I’ve learned a lot about methodology for ethnobiology over the past that I hope to apply in a more specific PhD project looking at the application of local bird knowledge to local conservation and land management efforts here in the Tanami. And I’ll be talking about methodology at AOC 2009 in Armidale and at the back-to-back conferences of the International Society of Ethnobiology and Society for Ethnobiology which will be held on the magnificent Vancouver island in British Columbia in May next year.

And by the way – if you are interested in having a look at a great set of posters (that I’ve written about earlier here) in for central Australian languages have a look at the set of posters that my friend and colleague Myfany Turpin, of the University of Queensland and the Charles Darwin University School for Policy and Social Research, has produced. The series of posters are of bird knowledge in the Arrernte, Anmatyerr, Alyawarr and Kaytetye languages spoken throughout central Australia.

Individually they portray 25 or so birds found in the areas in which each language is spoken. As a set they reveal the depth of knowledge that Aboriginal people have of the birds that they hunt, share campsites and townships with and which are spiritually important or are involved in or related to traditional ceremonies and beliefs.
If you want any further information about my project please send an email to [email protected] and I’ll be happy to send an Information Sheet or answer – as best I can – your queries. And please feel free to pass this email on to anyone you think might be interested in this project.

Cheers and I may see you on the road over the next few months.