Joint thoughts on race, migration, and culture…

In which Evan and Barbara share their reflections in conversation with each other.

BT: Our reading group’s emphasis on connection between Australia and the rest of the world and the groups within Australia has pushed me to think a lot of belongingness. One of our group’s first readings was a chapter focused on Australian national identity wherein the authors Duncan, Leigh, Madden, and Tynan present particular values, including embracing diversity and reconciling with indigeneity, that would promote a truer, more multicultural Australian identity. One that would reflect the Australia of today. The writer’s hearts seemed to be in the right place, and in many places, these writers used the all-encompassing “we” to talk about the nation. I kept wondering, who is included in that “we”? Would the people of color within Australia agree with the values put forth? Is it that simple? I came to Australia looking for any evidence of that inclusive spirit. How does Australia talk about its Aboriginal people? What is the representation of different ethnic groups in these major cities?

ER: I read something recently by Robert Manne that suggested that there are three threads of Australian identity at the moment: the aboriginal peoples, the white anglo/settler culture, and a third wave of recent  and diverse migration under the banner of multiculturalism. Indeed, contemporary Australia is a profoundly racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse place and nearly a third of the present population was born elsewhere. At the same time it is plainly a place shaped by a fairly recent history of explicit and profoundly violent white supremacism. These might be points to frame approaches to your questions…

BT: We definitely saw evidence of those threads in each city, to varying degrees. Sydney, even with the significant numbers of tourists in town for Vivid Sydney, felt incredibly homogeneous racially. The second we landed in Melbourne, I knew I would find myself more at ease there. The racial and ethnic diversity was evident before we’d even left the airport. In Melbourne, however, with so much immigration from Asia, we learned firsthand that multiculturalism was not a value held by everyone (no surprise there). Tours in Melbourne were in stark contrast to those in Sydney that spoke about indigeneity and diversity with pride.

Bill Bryson writes in In a Sunburned Country about the Aboriginal invisibility and disconnection between Australian native and white peoples, and that even he, as an American white man, grew to not see the Aborigines as well. I’m interested in some of your insights to this end.



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The Appeal (and Confinement) of the Outback

On our early morning tour to Uluru National Park on Sunday, I asked the driver/tour guide Phil what prompted him to come to this place. He told us he had worked on the West coast of Australia, near Perth, before making the decision to register for an online tour guiding course and then moving out to the red center with its vast open spaces and many holy sites for First Peoples. I was curious about what drives a person to make such a move. Phil, a lanky, 40-something guy with a no-nonsense demeanor and a knack for storytelling, said that he loved the land, the stories, and the vastness of the space out there. This kind of love for the wide open space and the desire to get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities seems to be a common theme in the Australian founding mythology. Coming to the outback after a 4-day visit in the big, modern city of Sydney was quite the contrast, and it gave us a bit of a glimpse of how it feels to move around in this amazing landscape. Getting away from the resort and spending the day in the outback also provided us with a sense of the awe and isolation that newcomers to the area must have felt.
On that long 4WD van ride through the vast, red terrain of a cattle station, which took us to a salt lake, an 800 year-old desert oak, the ruins of a stone house built by an Irish settler in the 19th century, and, finally, to a place near Mt. Connor at sunset, I asked a similar question of Gary, our driver and guide, but this time relating to the Europeans who moved out here to settle down. I wanted to understand what drives/drove people to move out there, where loneliness, drought, sometimes flooding, and wild animals dominate everyday life. As soon as I asked the question, an answer came to me: of course it must have to do with being in charge of one’s own destiny (often an illusion, to be sure), on the heels of promises made by others – the government offered or leased land on the prairie and beyond to white Europeans who had served in World War I, for example. But Gary also emphasized the love of the vast space, which reveals more of its incredible diversity of plants and animals and rocks the longer one spends time in it. And then there is the sky that stretches on and on far into the distance in all directions. We got a glimpse of its beauty at sunset, when we stopped the vehicle, Mt. Connor in the background, and the vast bush in front of us.
What struck me about those stories is that male mobility is often at the center. The women in the pioneer stories followed their men, and they ended up stuck in a home many miles away from others, like rancher Peter’s wife Dawn, who was discouraged by her husband from learning how to drive, thus ending up alone in the home for long stretches of time every day. There she was cut off from communication and encouters with others, except for their children, animals, and sometimes strangers who passed through the station and whom she insisted on offering tea and biscuits. The disconnection and loneliness they must have felt seem unfathomable today. But even today we experienced first-hand how far away destinations are and how little contact people have with others if they live out in these remote locations.
After this outing to the outback, returning to yet another large urban area, the bustling city of Melbourne, was a little unsettling for me. Although I loved the narrow alleys, fantastic Asian restaurants, and the museums that had more Australian history and art on display, I found myself thinking back to the vast open spaces of the red center of the country a bit longingly.
Mareike Herrmann
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“A taste for desert landscapes”

W.V.O. Quine the influential Harvard philosopher of the 20th century is known for his ontological parsimony. That is, he preferred to recognize fewer rather than more things in his official picture of reality and (allegedly) once explained this intellectual stance by appeal to his aesthetic preference for desert landscapes. The thought seems to be that desert landscapes have fewer things in them–perhaps containing only what is essential–and that this is good. Metaphysical good taste is hence dictated by a kind of prior aesthetic minimalism, itself brought on on by the experience of, for example, looking at deserts. Spending a little time in the semi-arid area around Uluru may convince you that Quine is wrong about this. It did me.

For, as the Hales groupies learned on our brief bush tour, this landscape is a very long way from empty. There are epochal ant and termite wars, scorpions that paint smiles on the soil, and many varieties of acacia. There are oaks that are not oaks, and that change in form from a spindly feather-duster sapling to a large and elegant tree–commonly by then having charred bark. There are desert poplars, that (of course) are not poplars, and which exhibits a bizarre (?) reproductive strategy of seeding the ground by toppling over and expiring. There are bitter melons, looking like nothing so much as abandoned strings of pale tennis balls and tasting awful. There is everywhere a spiky grass called spinifex. There are honey ants, some of the workers of which store edible nectar in their engorged abdomens.  There are numerous species of snakes–venomous and not–and many lizards–including a skink with a lively blue tongue. Then there are the native birds and mammals, and all the various invasive species that have gone feral to one degree or another–such as camels, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands.  And there are the remaining Aboriginal peoples and the more or less feral human invaders. In short, this desert landscape–its lethality not withstanding–is simply teeming with life. Quine’s point is hence not well made with respect to central Australia in the area around Uluru.

What misleads us outsiders is the failure to see the particulars, to see the details. In short, ignorant outsiders cannot read the landscape, and will be naturally prone to view this place as a monotonous wasteland. This failure is surely cognitive and aesthetic, yet it can have deadly practical consequences. It is dangerous! Yet this did not prevent some human beings from inhabiting the area around Uluru for the last 30,000 years or so. The key to the success of the Anangu people was clearly their ability to skillfully read the landscape. And part of the special genius of the Anangu and the other aboriginal peoples is their way of instituting and sharing knowledge though the songline. Songlines are guides to navigable tracks thoughout the outback, encoded as traditional songs that reflect on the features of the landscape in ways both mythical and practical. They form a kind of common library across the hugely diverse linguistic communities of the aboriginal peoples, in the absence of a common tongue or even much of a written alphabet. Truly amazing.

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Melbourne Zoo

Our intrepid group of travelers took advantage of our final morning in Oz to tour the Melbourne Zoo. Shout-out to staffer Emily McLeod for organizing it and to Jenny for serving as our tour guide!

This was valuable not only for us to see some of the native (and nonnative) wildlife, but also to discover what the zoo is doing to try to conserve them. Australian zoos and the Melbourne zoo in particular have been very innovative in developing programs to protect animals in the wild, from their “Seal the Loop” campaign to get people to discard old fishing line safely rather than allow it, for example, to get wrapped around the feet and beaks of penguins, to an attempt to encourage blowing bubbles rather than purchasing helium-filled balloons, which are often eaten by seals and seabirds with bad results, to displays that instruct people of the importance of keeping their cats indoors. (We learned in Uluru of the devastation that feral cats can create among native species of lizards and birds.)

Their most recent program was called “Who gives a crap”, and promoted the use of recycled toilet paper in order to protect habitat. We didn’t have time to fully explore this exhibit, but there were intriguing models of toilet paper rolls and toilets that I’m sure were a big hit with the child visitors and probably many of the adults. We definitely learned a lot about the innovative ways that the Melbourne Zoo is using to try to protect local (and international) wildlife.

The theme of isolation and connection was reflected in the diversity of indigenous species we saw (emus, kangaroos, wombats, and pelicans, as well as many beautiful birds and even stick insects), evolving in their previously isolated corner of the globe, and in the way they are threatened by the increasing interconnectedness that human activity has created. Hopefully connections (among researchers, across countries, and between humans and animals) can help to protect them as well.


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Isolation on Curtin Springs Station

One of our educational journeys while we were in central Australia was an 8-hour tour of Curtin Springs Station (station=ranch in Australia). In many ways, this was one of the most unexpected and surprising aspects of our stay in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta region, since we had mostly prepared ourselves for the visit to the Aboriginal sacred site. What ensued was a day of exploring another side of the isolation/connection binary that we spent the year reading and ruminating about while at Wooster. It also exposed us to the ranching lifestyle of the Anglo settlers in the region, which closely resembles the cowboy culture of the Southwestern United States. As part of the central frontier, this regional identity occupies a special place in the national imaginary of modern Australia. When asked why they came on the tour, the couple with us answered, “Because we wanted to see the real Australian Outback.”

As we drove away from the hotel region, we quickly realized the expanse of the area. Though we were captivated by the beauty of the landscape, our guide continued to impress on us the sheer distance and isolation of the area from the rest of Australia. We passed a few abandoned vehicles on the sides of the rode, which we were told are left behind by their owners (it is cheaper to buy a new car if yours breaks down out here, rather than to have it towed to the nearest shop). We were also told that the price of food and petrol are much higher in this area than others in Australia. The sheer excess that we experienced in Sydney (wealth, water, food, people) stood in stark contrast to the ways we were experiencing and reimagining physical space and our own spacial relationship to the land and sky in the Outback.

Curtin Springs Station is a one million acre cattle ranch with a population of 30 people (about the size of Rhode Island or Delaware). Throughout the day we kept being reminded of the almost complete isolation of the people who live and work here. The station was leased by the Severin family (Peter and Dawn) in 1956. At that time the area was so remote and unknown that Peter refused to leave the car where his wife could get to it (or even teach her how to drive) out of fear that she would run away. We also learned that schoolchildren went to school by tuning into a classroom on the radio and that wives would create codes so that they could gossip with each other whenever they had the chance to speak over the airwaves. This reminded us that no matter what the distance was between stations, a sense of community, belonging, and support existed for the families that decided to make this their way of life.

Since this is a cattle ranch, we were surprised to hear that people don’t always see cows while on this tour. We saw several, but were shocked to notice that many of them had not been tagged (which means they just roam free and are unaccounted for by the ranch hands). This is because the station controls its cattle though the manipulation of the water sources. We were told that this year was a good rain year and that it meant the cows do not need to obey the water controls. Shockingly, the station has to deal with a 7-10 year rain cycle, which means that there is a good season every 7-10 years (meaning that everything in between is drought). So the planning and development has to operate on a 10 year horizon!

We were continuously reminded, however, that this region of Australia has a semi-arid climate and is not a desert like most people think it is, which accounts for the many different plants and animals that inhabit the area. Nature just became a little ingenious in how it handles those long stretches without water. Here is a photo of the so-called “Halfway Tree.” It is a large Desert Oak that is approximately 400 years old (with Evan standing under it to give a sense of proportion).

Though this part of the country is isolated, it has also been touched by the forces of globalization. In addition to cattle, which are obviously not native to the continent, the land is occupied by camels. We learned the previous day that there are more than one million feral camels in central Australia. They were brought over when Anglo explorers and their horses failed to survive in the hot and dry climate (and are now exported to Saudi Arabia). Peter and Dawn’s son had the opportunity to study in Europe and brought back knowledge about invitro fertilization, though the station decided to keep doing things the old-fashioned way. And, as we were told time and time again, the current employees of the ranch and the tourist agencies come from all over Australia to escape the cities. In our two days here, we also saw groups and people from Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia. This station has been photographed countless times and its likeness shared on social media for people all over the world to see, which would have been unimaginable for Peter and Dawn when they first ventured out here alone to what they believed was the Australian unknown.

A quick fun fact: many people drive to central Australia, see Mount Conner in the distance and believe it is Uluru, stop and take a picture of it, then turn around to go home (which is why it is known as “Fool-uru”). Here are two pictures of the group: at Lake Swanson (an ancient salt lake that is currently dried up) and in front of Mount Conner. Both are located on Curtin Springs Station (again, it is that big!)

And here is a view of the spectacular sunset at Curtin Springs Station. In many ways, this type of view could only been seen in a vast area of human isolation.


Now that we are in Melbourne, we will get to see a completely different regional identity of Australia. Far from the Outback, we will explore the city that continues its rivalry with Sydney and that claims to have better urban planning, development, and art, food, and culture scenes. We’ve also been told that Melbourne’s “Britishness” is more evident than that of any other Australian city and that they have the best coffee in the country. So as we arrive back to the periphery, with red dust on our shoes, we will continue to look for the images and narratives that connect the urban and rural landscapes and people of this continent.

Jimmy Noriega

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Sydney Fish Market

As suggested by the Sydney Fish Market’s seafood school’s brochure, such delicacies from the sea can take “your weekend barbie from casual to gourmet.”  Our latest news from the Land of Oz includes a brief update as several of our traveling Hales Study Group members left our hotel early Thursday a.m. for the Sydney Seafood Fish Market.


We were oriented to the “floor” by our guide Branden, who was soon explaining the distribution of different species and seafood types of that morning’s haul including first, the largest delights that were caught by fish lines including massive tuna and swordfish.  Who knew that with a very rapid whack to the ‘brainstem,” the catch would immediately become still and be ready for fast preparation on board, long before coming in to the fish market.  And the recent catch of “specialty” fish would occupy another quadrant of the Market’s main floor, often destined for Sydney’s varied ethnic restaurants, shops, and customers. Crustaceans were in abundance and included assorted bivalves such as oysters, clams, and scallops, all positioned in another corner.  And amid the cacophony of sounds of workers carting away the purchased delights, for the first few hours of each morning, three enlarged screens with massive running “place your bid” clocks provided the auction details — including weight and quantity, and the important opening bid prices for the bleacher-filled section of brokers vying for various segments of the morning’s catch.  What manually took all day for verbal auctioneering in years past — now wrapped up by 8:00 a.m.!


How intriguing to learn that a country with such a reasonably small population, could have access to 100s of species of seafood and a daily haul of 1000s of kilos of diversified delicacies.  Surprisingly, Branden informed us that the “typical” Aussie still select their three or four “favs,” often including prawns, salmon, and varied options for fish and chips!

Did you know that a lively lobster could be soothed by the gentle posterior patting from the head (see below)?

And an expert crew of about six oyster shuckers, spend the day filling trays upon trays of prepped bivalves for local chefs, restaurants, and the retail customers who come to buy.  And during our dinners we have sampled salmon, king prawns, trout, blue-eyed cod, whiting, mahi mahi, among other varieties from the sea — nothing quite rivaled the scene we sampled at the Sydney Sea Market.

We now travel from the Sydney Harbor and the riches we have experienced so far — it is off to hallowed ground of some of the indigenous peoples who were the first inhabitants of this land of Oz.




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Thoughts on the tourist experience

Understanding the experience of place!

Yesterday we arrived at Uluru (Ayers Rock) — a place of special spiritual significance to the native people. It’s the connection between land and culture that made this Australia trip especially interesting to me, and the implication that you can’t understand the people without seeing the land. Culture serves to mediate the experience of place for the local aboriginal people: their history and traditions tell them how to understand its meaning and significance. We of the Hales group are having our experience mediated in a different way; tourism, rather than culture, is presenting and packaging the meaning and significance of the place for us. But we are still here. Our bodies are still in this place; we still feel the dry desert air, smell the plants, see the glowing rock. This matters. It not only gives us a deeper and richer experience but also allows us a minuscule window into the experience of others who have been in this place.

Bodily experiences

A few days ago we visited the Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney, a building which had housed, first, laboring convicts, and young Irish working women fleeing the Famine. We were invited to lie on the reconstructed hammocks or cots in order to share that bodily experience with those who had been there in earlier centuries (minus the lice, hunger, and floggings). Of course it’s laughably insufficient for a real understanding of what their life was like. We need to avoid the illusion that we can really stand in the shoes of others, especially based on such a brief experience. But it’s a start. I think we need to make the effort to have some point of contact. Shared experiences of place, based on sensory information rather than intellectual exercise, may give us a brief but important opportunity for empathy. As research shows, and technology is beginning to exploit, shared bodily sensations and experiences can help us to understand the perspectives of others. The video in the Ayers Rock airport put it this way: our visit can help us to see the land through Anangu eyes.

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Art in Sydney, past and present

We visited several art museums and exhibitions during our days in Sydney. The collections provide a fascinating record of how artists have constructed the images of Australia over time to reflect their shifting sense of identity and the conflicts and concerns of the moment. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales we saw a diverse collection, including numerous European works from across the centuries—a guide proudly pointed us toward one painting each by Cezanne and Monet, for example—as well as works by white Australians and indigenous artists, the latter of whom were especially featured in contemporary collections.

Arthur Streeton, “Fire’s On” (1891)

Streeton documents an important phase of Australia’s development as a nation in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with the building of the railroad across the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. “Fire’s On,” the warning call when a blast goes off, depicts the response to the death of a worker, where the human activity is dwarfed by the vast and treacherous landscape and the sense of dry heat and harsh light.

As a mark of the global currents of art history, it’s not difficult to see in Australian artist Frank Hinder’s “Tram Kaleidoscope” (1948) the history of European modernism, following the forms of cubism and the dynamism of futurism to celebrate Sydney as a modern city:

We also saw numerous works by Aboriginal artists, including a room centering on a massive display of carved tree trunks which were surrounded by exquisite bark paintings, including, for example, “Lany’tjung story” (“Crocodile bandicoot, Fire dreaming”) by Munggurrawuy Yunupingu (1959), seen here in detail.










Many pieces we saw celebrated the intricate forms of Aboriginal art, with its swirling geometries of dots, circular forms, and individual brushstrokes and its representations of totem animals and stories from the foundational cultural traditions of the songlines that connect peoples across thousands of years. Timothy Cook’s “Kulama” (2015), at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is dedicated to the annual yam ceremony of the Tiwi people, from the Tiwi islands, a ceremony that serves as an initiation ritual for young men:

The art we saw also, however, exposed the painful, ineradicable effects of settler colonialism on Australia’s indigenous peoples. In a four channel video installation, “tall man 2010,” by Vernon Ah Kee, for example, four juxtaposed screens show real-time footage of a violent escalation of racial tensions when the Aboriginal residents of Palm Island, a small village in Queensland, learned the autopsy results of an indigenous man who died in police custody. In a different vein, Esme Timbery, an artist from a Sydney suburb, employs in “Shellworked Slippers” (2008) a traditional craft of shellwork to create two hundred pairs of empty, child-sized slippers. The installation memorializes the suffering of Aboriginal people under government policies that caused dispossession and disadvantage, linking the long-established craft to the changing realities of the contemporary city.

The riveting, deeply disturbing stories and images seem all too familiar—another way in which we find our histories crossing vast borders.

Deb Shostak

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Who belongs on Cockatoo Island?

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Staging Australia: Theatre, Art, and the Opera House

Today we departed our hotel at 6:25am for an early morning backstage tour of the famed Sydney Opera House. Our nearly three hour journey began through the large underground passageway where materials and supplies are brought into the building and allowed us to see storage spaces for lighting equipment, sets, and large instruments, as well as rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, and behind the scenes corridors. We got to see four different performance venues, along with their backstage spaces, stage managers’ booths, and rigging and fly systems. One of the many interesting facts that we learned is that there are no wings in the theatres, since space itself is incredibly limited throughout the entire building (in fact, people catch dancers as they leap from the audience’s view so that they do not crash into the walls). This is the result of the giant, outside “sails” which were designed first, leaving the architects the challenge of figuring out how to fit everything else underneath them (we kept being reminded that the Opera House is horizontally challenged). Of course, the highlight was walking on the stage of the Concert Hall, with its giant organ and over 2000 seats. We finished our tour with a lovely breakfast in the Green Room and got to walk outside to see the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the balcony of the building.

We continued through the Royal Botanic Gardens and onto the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where we witnessed an incredible collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, as well as modern European and Australian art. This piece by Mumu Mike Williams, titled “Ngura (country),” was painted on Australian Post mail bags. It was particularly striking as it plays off of the message painted on the bags: “Theft or misuse of this bag is a criminal offence penalties apply.” It offers a direct commentary on land possession, government, law and punishment, and indigenous expression and reclamation (and is a recent work, created in 2017).

Our day ended with a performance of Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death, by Nakkiah Lui (a Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander female playwright), which was staged at the Sydney Theatre Company. The show opened last week and is a mixture of traditional theatre (complete with stunning monologues for the female, Aboriginal lead actress) with intense lighting and sound effects, and  comic book and graphic novel aesthetics and narratives. As the publicity notes describe, “Somewhere in the Australian bush, mild-mannered archaeologist Dr. Jacqueline Black uncovers a mass grave. She picks up a skull and is over-powered by the spirit of her great-great-grandmother… BAM! Blackie Blackie Brown has arrived and she is a cold-blooded vigilante. Her mission: kill all the descendants of the men who massacred her ancestors. White people, watch out. This isn’t about forgiveness. And it’s not about reconciliation.” The performance was a powerful two-person show, filled with moments of extreme comedy and violence (as one would expect of the topic and genre). It was also sprinkled with intensely somber moments, including a monologue about the mass murder of an Aboriginal community and descriptions of modern day mistreatment of First Peoples in Australia. The new show (it just opened last week) was an empowering, lively, and important piece of theatre that critiqued the Australian government and its history, as well as put into perspective the continuing effects of racism and colonialism on the Aboriginal population today.

It was a day full of art and performance in Sydney! And we still have so much more ahead for us all!

Jimmy Noriega

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