Patricia, an indigenous Byellee woman from the area, told me that she had been involved in a lot of cultural heritage activity around the red mud damn areas locally where the refinery has been built. She spoke about doing some planting of Grass Trees, Xanthorrhoea australis, in the area and that this was a species that needed fire to regrow every year. Marylin, another resident who attended the workshop at the same time, told us that she used to call the flower spikes of the Grass trees ‘bongy knockers’ because when they went camping as children, they would pick up the fallen spikes and chase each other around with them, hitting each other on the head. Patricia mentioned that they were traditionally used as spears and fire sticks, and that you can get nectar from the flowers, and resin from the tree to make glue.
The fire was also good in increasing the visibility across the ground, Patricia told us, ultimately exposing stone artifacts and little bits of pottery from her ancestors. On the other hand, there were Scar Trees in the area which had previously been located but were unfortunately destroyed during the fires. ‘We pretty much needed fire to live, to survive, but there’s the good and the bad,’ Patricia said. She also mentioned that a lot of introduced species make bushfires more intense.
Marylin said that her neighbours regularly engage in controlled burning and that she quite liked the ‘clean smell’ of the bush smoke compared with the barbecue.
On Patricia’s first cultural heritage walk which started in Targinnie, she found the first artifact of the survey: ‘a horse-shoe scraper, they called it, for [tanning] the animal skins… There’s a lot of technology in this stuff. It’s like when you make the stone tools, you have to be a geologist in the first place to know what stones to use.’ Other stone tools that were found at Larcom Creek were full-finished axe heads, made from the basalt of Mount Larcom. Patricia also mentioned that they have found the natural pigment ochre on the stone tools in the area, which would have been used in ceremonies. In reference to old and modern technologies, a stone blade is represented in the artwork opposite the solar-powered tower atop the mountain peak.
Patricia also shared a story about her Uncle who was walking out on Byellee land and had picked up some stone tools and taken them home to put in his bedroom. ‘He could swear to God that at two o’clock in the morning it sounded like they were making those stone tools, so the next day, he took them back. But you get feelings too when you’re walking around that you’re just not supposed to be in certain places. You just acknowledge, like we do, our Elders and ancestors, acknowledge them, tell them that you’re there and that you’re not going to do harm to anything. Sometimes there have been days when they’re trying to take photos of stuff and the camera doesn’t work. Some people don’t believe in that stuff until they come out and actually start getting feelings or certain things happen and it changes their way of thinking.’
Patricia also mentioned that along the conveyor belt for the refinery, there was a tea tree swamp and in that area, there were necklaces found made from kangaroo teeth.
‘And then you have to be a botanist as well to know what plants to use,’ Patricia continued. In this artwork, several ‘resource species’ that are either edible, medicinal, or both, have been represented here out of respect for the rich cultural heritage of the Country. From left to right, these include oyster shells, Bracken fern (Pteridium esculentum) which was roasted as food or used as an ointment to rub on insect bites, Dysentery plant (Grewia latifolia) whose roots were used, as the name suggests, as a decoction for diarrhoea, Pigweed (Portulaca oleracea) which can be eaten both raw and cooked as a vegetable, and whose seeds can be ground into a meal from which cakes and bread can be made, Kangaroo Apple (Solanum laciniatum) which could be used to make a drink which would act as a contraceptive or for applying to aid in joint pain.
Patricia also spoke about her experience with Aboriginal language revival, saying that she preferred to learn by creating rhymes and songs. In the late 1800s, when Walter Roth, anthropologist and protector of Aborigines, began to record language, the area was called ‘Byellee’ but spelled with a ‘p’ because ‘Roth still had that English hearing, and in Aboriginal languages that ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds are the same… So doing our language revival stuff, we pick a sound system whether you want it to be ‘b’ or ‘p’... We’ve always been called ‘Byellee’ so it’s more than likely a ‘b’ sound.’ The word list of the language workshops which Patricia attends which started at seventy has now increased to a hundred and includes plants and places.
The inclusion of a ringtail possum pays respect to the Byellee totum, but also aims to highlight what Patricia shared about the possibility of her ancestors wearing possum skin cloaks, as photographed in Victoria by John Kerr in the middle of the 19th century.
Participant Marylin illuminated the difficulty of rural living with a story about going through health problems. She was waiting to have a kidney transplant and would get sick quite often. They had to call the ambulance at one stage but because there was just one ambulance in Mount Larcom and it was out at an emergency, Marylin had had to wait until an ambulance from Gladstone or Rockhampton could come. Marylin said it was lucky that it wasn’t a critical situation for her, but since then she has agreed with the people at Old Station that they will fly her in their plane to the hospital if need be.
For Liz, another resident in the Mount Larcom area, the bush, birds, and animals were forefront in her mind when thinking of home. The peace and quiet she felt while overlooking the dam on her property was particularly significant for her as she’d enjoy watching the ducks and cormorants paddle on the water between the waterlilies. ‘The flowering purple petrea… the views of the hills… we have great sunsets here,’ Liz went on. ‘When we have fiery red sunsets, it usually means there is smoke in the air around bushfires, but I love the pastel ones with clouds.’
Liz echoed Marylin’s statement about there being a lot of community groups to access here even if you weren’t consistently part of them, and that, of course, many people from around the region were involved in the Mount Larcom show once a year which would transform the town into a hub.
Liz also told me about the fires in 2018 which were devastating to the community. ‘If we had managed our land better, more regularly over the previous five years, then it might not have burned so badly… we know it needs to burn… but it’s also a shame to burn because the marsupials live in the long grass. So there’s a dilemma - harming nature while protecting or managing it.’ Liz said that she believes there needs to be more indigenous burning practices brought back in. ‘I’m not an expert but I believe that indigenous practice is that you burn after a certain amount of rain, so it’s a slow, cool burn… But our seasons seem to be changing. We haven’t had moisture in the ground when it’s cooler. Most people burn in summer after the rain but the ground is not cool. You should have at least 30mm of rain before a burn. We need to be taught how to manage the land. I definitely need to know to feel confident here.’
When the fires happened, local residents Tarn, and partner at the time Linton were at the movie theatre in Gladstone. They had experienced a ‘terrifying’ fire on their property not long before which they said was their own fault, so Tarn believed she knew how to handle this one. However, when her phone kept going off at the movies with friends across the country asking if she had been evacuated and was okay, they raced home.
They only had new, rich-green grass for 40 hectares around their land which they knew was a fire break so Tarn and Linton believed they’d be safe. The police came to evacuate them, but they refused, knowing that they weren’t in real danger and that Linton had a fire hose if need be. Their neighbour, however, was surrounded by very dry, long grass so Linton, having had years of experience as a firefighter in WA and in the Blue Mountains, drove up to her place to help her. The neighbour had already evacuated, and Linton put out a fire that had started in her shed, which, he claims, quite possibly saved her house. Linton said he could feel the wind change, and knowing that it was the fire sucking in the air from around him, he knew it was time to leave.
Patty had left her chickens, goats, dogs, and cats at the property - all of which survived, finding places to hide away from the flames.
Meanwhile, Tarn was back at home, taking care of the couple’s several rescued dogs. Tarn described herself as being ‘a spiritual person’ who aligns with the modern Pagan religion Wicca. She decided to make four protection jars as per a Wiccan spell, filled with rock salt, rice, basil, and lavender to place at the north, south, east, and west corners of their property. Linton said, ‘now I don’t consider myself to be spiritual by any means, but even I couldn’t deny there was something there. I have to give it some credit.’ The fire had ripped through their neighbour’s property right up to Tarn and Linton’s fence line, then it exploded one of the protection jars and turned at a 90-degree angle heading down the land. ‘Okay, so we did have short, green grass,’ Tarn said, ‘but the spell definitely protected us.’