Nature, culture and ‘belonging’ in Australia

Forests as spiritually significant places: nature, culture and ‘belonging’ in Australia

David Trigger

Public debates surrounding the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process (1) in Western Australia were characterised by division, primarily between anti-logging campaigners, who wanted to preserve as much old-growth forest as possible and pro-logging supporters, who wanted to ensure the ongoing viability of the timber industry. Throughout the dispute, these two groups tended to represent themselves, and were usually presented by the media, as diametrically opposed in their views on the value of the forests. The people campaigning against extensive logging were typically depicted as emotional and sentimental in their approach, driven by idealistic and romantic ideas, although those supporting the timber industry were depicted as rational and utilitarian, a set of stereotypes that are commonly applied in conflicts associated with environmental protection (Milton 2002: 4). Extended interviews (2) with individuals involved in these opposing campaigns indicated that this division of values was not as clear cut as it often appeared, especially in the context of discourses about the spiritual significance of the forest. (3) We take these discourses as our focus here in order to reveal some of the overlapping (rather than contesting) sentiments about land and nature that lay beneath the surface of the 1999 conflict over forest management in the southwest of Western Australia. In doing so, we consider how people’s talk and thoughts about the forest constitute a window on to Australian sentiments about place and related articulations of settler-descendant identity.

Ideas about nature, culture and belonging are strongly implicated in any discussion about spirituality and landscape. In Australia (and similar societies), the concept of indigeneity can also be significant, whether or not that term is explicitly used. For some citizens, deeply embedded assumptions about hierarchies of ‘spiritual belonging’ to land give priority to those individuals who can make the strongest claims to autochthonous status. To ‘truly’ belong in a landscape, according to such logic, is to be born in that place and to have many generations of ancestors born there as well. This creates inevitable tensions in settler societies where the vast majority of residents have ancestral lineages that simultaneously tie them to distant countries they may no longer have any living connection with, and deny them ‘deep belonging’ in their country of birth–a discomfiting situation that can be intensified by the ongoing presence and claims of the Aboriginal inhabitants. Nonetheless, settler-descendants may experience strong feelings of attachment to places in which they reside and/or which are significant for other reasons. Such connections are sometimes expressed in terms of spiritual relationships to land (Strang 1997; Dominy 2001; Mulcock 2002).

Anna King, a scholar of religious studies, suggests that spirituality might best be understood very broadly as ‘the capacity of human beings to create or perhaps discover value and meaning’ (1996: 350), as an expression of creativity, imagination, change and relationship (1996: 345). This concept of ‘spirituality’ thus encompasses a range of feelings and experiences that stretch well beyond the narrower category of formal religious practice. By way of illustration, King (1996: 343) tells of a person describing ‘walking in the country’ as a form of spirituality, implying that such experiences can involve intense ‘feelings of harmony, serenity and well-being’. Similar sentiments are implied or named among our interviewees when they talk about spiritual experiences they associate with the forests. Their reports suggest an emotional attachment to place that is, in some instances, linked with a strong sense of belonging that motivates individuals’ involvement in campaigns to protect places of personal significance. (4)

Linn Miller, an Australian philosopher, says of ‘belonging’ that it is ontological, ‘a state of being in which we are related to the world’, socially, historically and geographically (2003: 217). The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that to belong is to ‘be related or connected; [to] be rightly or naturally placed’, to ‘fit a specified environment, [to] not be out of place’. The very idea of ‘belonging’ has a powerful but intangible quality; although it can result from the most mundane and tangible of circumstances, ‘belonging’ is often experienced and/or articulated through reference to ‘feelings’, to emotion, intuition, or spirituality. How to apprehend this phenomenon analytically remains a challenge for social research (Tuan 1990: xii; Bonyhady and Griffiths 2002a: 9). (5) It has been pointed out that the idea of belonging is intimately linked to the notion of ‘home’, the latter being perhaps a less ambiguous and more commonly engaged trope (e.g. Rushdie 1994; Iyer 2000; Mathews 2000; Baldassar 2001). Lovell (1998) emphasises the importance of memory and emotion for feelings of belonging to and longing for particular places. She draws attention to the ways in which ‘[r]ootedness and rootlessness evoke conditions of existence which tend to stress the emotional gravity of place’ (1998: 1). This is evident, we believe, from material we present on Euro-Australian connections with, and belonging to, the forest landscapes of the southwest corner of the continent. If rootedness in land facilitates Aboriginal Australians’ assertion of a distinctive and unique status, we may ask about the ways in which settler and migrant descendants (6) reflect on their own status and feelings of belonging (and, in certain respects, not belonging) to Australian places.

Spiritual and cultural significance of forests

Trees and forests have had considerable cultural and spiritual significance for people around the world and throughout time (James 1973; Harrison 1992; Schama 1996; Rival 1998a; Jones and Cloke 2003). They have been important economic resources, often have religious significance and aesthetic value, and have long been used as symbols for spiritual energy, growth, self-regeneration and life in general (Rival 1998b). Trees have achieved a particularly iconic status in the international environmentalist movement. They have become important unifying symbols in Western green politics, representing environmental health and social vitality, as metaphors and metonyms for the whole of ‘nature’ (Rival 1998b: 16). Trees could be said to be charismatic in a way that many other plant species are not.

In Australia, whereas we might well identify an historical, deeply entrenched societal desire for the absence of trees, (7) native trees have also long held special significance–partly valued as an economic resource, but also as sources of inspiration and intellectual reflection, symbols of place and metaphors for life (e.g. Seddon 1997; Bonyhady 2000; Griffiths 2001; McDonald 2001; Brown 2002; Hay 2002; Condon 2003; Crawford and Crawford 2003). It is against this backdrop of contesting values that debates over the logging of old growth forests in the 1990s may be understood.

Hillier (2002: 74) comments that of all the arguments for and against the RFA in Western Australia, (8) those that focused on the spiritual significance of the forests were among the most marginalised. She further suggests that such arguments were presented only by Aboriginal people and members of ‘New Age’ and Neo-Pagan movements (Hillier 2002: 59, 73-4). Although this may have been the case in the public pronouncements of contesting groups, our interviews conducted in 1999 indicate that this is far too narrow an attribution overall. As we will show, individuals from a range of backgrounds, including the timber industry, expressed strong feelings of attachment and spiritual connection to the forests in general and to particular trees. The reflections on the spiritual significance of forests described here mostly arose in response to a question asked during all interviews about the range of values associated with land. Interviewees were asked whether they agreed with the notions that land can be valued according to (1) its economic potential, as a resource for wealth creation; (2) its intrinsic environmental or conservation worth; and (3) its spiritual significance. Most interviewees made some reference to Aboriginal attachments to land in their discussion of the spiritual value, often in comparison to their own feelings of attachment (or lack thereof) to the places in question.

To say that a place or thing has spiritual significance for an individual or community is to imply that it is has been inscribed with considerable personal and cultural meaning. Some of the people interviewed, especially those not immersed in the environmentalist campaign where comments about the spiritual value of land were common, struggled to articulate the quality of their attachment to particular places. They often associated the term ‘spirituality’, sometimes negatively, with Aboriginal people or with anti-logging protestors, rather than with their own pleasurable or personally significant experiences of being in the bush. Nonetheless, certain sentiments expressed by these individuals could be easily accommodated within a broader understanding of spirituality and landscape. As such, we use the notion of ‘spiritual attachment to place’ to understand interviewees’ diverse emotions and experiences regarding connection to, or intimacy with, the forest environment.

Our interviewees can be roughly divided into two groups–those who were involved in the timber industry in some way and/or were supportive of more extensive ‘logging’, and those who took an explicitly ‘environmentalist’ position and opposed logging, especially of old growth forests. The former tended to be long-term residents in the region and usually highlighted the economic reasons for maintaining the forest industry. Some of the environmental campaigners were also long-term residents, but many were ‘outsiders’ who visited or took up residence in the area during the dispute. These latter people typically highlighted the aesthetic and ecological reasons for protecting the forests and took the position that they belong to everyone, not just to resource developers and governments. The division between the groups became less clear when we broached the matter of spiritual attachments to place, with representatives of both expressing strong feelings for particular locales in the surrounding landscape. (9) Overall, the interviewees attributed three interrelated, often overlapping, kinds of spiritual (10) significance to southwest forests–religious, ecological and Aboriginal. We will discuss the first two briefly before exploring the third–which deals more directly with the matter of belonging–in greater detail.

Religious experience in the forest

Several respondents talked about the spiritual significance of the forest in terms of Christian religious experience. For some, this was a place to pray, to be ‘nearer to God’. To illustrate, one woman (connected with the timber industry) explained that she felt ‘much, much closer … to God … in the forest than in a man-built church’. (11) Another person, a farmer in her late 50s who strongly supported the timber industry and had lived most of her life in the area, said that although she did not ‘get any spiritual kick from walking through the bush’, there were some ‘perfect spots’ on her farm where she might go ‘to pray’. Her appreciation of the forested areas on her property was linked more strongly to the working history of the farm and the family memories associated with particular places than it was to any intrinsic characteristics of the forest itself. She pointed out that although she did not have a personal passion for the bush, she did like to observe the changes that took place on her property over the years, and that there were some special locations where she liked to take her grandchildren for recreation. Initially unsympathetic to the interviewer’s question about the spiritual significance of the forest, this pro-logging campaigner did acknowledge that she could admire and understand the passion that others felt, even though she sought her own spiritual inspiration elsewhere.

A man in his late 50s who worked in the tourist industry drew parallels between formal religious experience and being in the forest. He described ‘the sense of massive pillars, shade of canopy trees and … the light filter[ing] through and so on’, saying: ‘I am not a religious person as far as going to church but I could really understand that spirituality’. The idea of the forest as a place to meet God is also captured in the following statement from a woman in her early 40s who had an urban background but was living in the southwest in 1999. This person was among those who self-identified as ‘fighting for the forests’ and seeking to end logging of old growth trees.

To me … God is like a goddess of nature … I feel a great

spiritual feeling … going into the forest. When I was little

I used to talk to trees. I think a lot of people probably did.

On the way to school [in a city environment] I used to say hello

to all these different ones…. I had to touch all these trees

and end up late for school because I … had this relationship

with the trees … I think that the bush is our cathedral, our

church, you know? It’s where we nurture our spirit … I think

if I couldn’t walk in the bush that I’d feel totally cut off.

Others spoke more circumspectly about a ‘Creator’ whose presence and actions were evident in the beauty of the forest. A man in his early 30s who took a leading role in the organisation of actions designed to block logging activities and gain media coverage offered this reflection:

I’m a spiritual person, definitely. And that is a motivation for

me in that I feel that the Creator made this for us to respect,

to value and to look after…. whether I win or I lose … doesn’t

really matter. But the fact that I’ve nurtured something that the

Creator has built, to me, is important … the fact that I took

that side and made that decision and went through that hardship

for Creation. At the blockade, we all feel blessed and we all, I

would say as a generalisation, are fairly spiritual. There’s this

Gaia talking, earth worship sort of stuff which is more a feeling

of empathy for the Creator and Creation and everything in its

unspoiled state as it was given to us.

However, in some views contrary to this person’s activism, productive usage of the forests is not only morally respectable, but also commensurate with forms of attachment which could be associated with the notion of spirituality. A National Parks manager (aged mid 30s) referred to Biblical instructions that call Christians to use the land for appropriate practical outcomes. He explained the sense of ‘spiritual renewal’ that he experienced from ‘being in a really beautiful place and enjoying the things that are there … sitting by a waterfall or a stream or whatever’. He also felt that although such local residents as timber mill workers may not easily articulate such experiences, ‘half the reason’ they go fishing and engage in other recreational pursuits in the bush is for a ‘sense of spiritual well-being’.

Even for those who were unsure that ‘spirituality’ was the right word or concept to describe their own attachments to the forest, it was clear in their view that such environments do mean ‘something beyond the physical’ (to quote a woman with a long history of environmental activism). For many this ‘something’ was immanent in the landscape itself, rather than indicative of the kind of transcendental presence associated with monotheistic beliefs.

Spiritual ecology of the forest

Some interviewee responses suggest beliefs closer to pantheism than deistic faiths. A mature-aged man, working in the city but actively committed to the anti-logging campaign, spoke of the ‘power’ of nature, while another person referred to the forest as having ‘intelligence’. A woman in her late 30s who had grown up close to Perth, described the spiritual presence that she felt existed in particular locations, especially places ‘off the beaten track’:

… if you walk into somewhere that is untouched … you feel this

special something there. Gladstone Falls [located on Deep River in

the southwest forest] is a prime example. Nobody can go there

without feeling the spirituality of the place, you know? And there

was a granite outcrop in Sharpe [Block] that was the same … that

granite outcrop had just the most awesome feel to it, you know?

Because it was just so pristine mosses and big old yellow tingle

trees and karri trees and jarrah trees (12) around. It was a really

diverse little spot and just so untouched. And I remember … [a

co-activist] and I sitting on the top of that granite outcrop …

just looking out at the trees and just being in complete harmony

with our surroundings … those are really special times. [Italics

indicating the speaker’s emphasis]

This person went on to suggest that such experiences ‘bond you’ with specific parts of the forest, ‘really deeply in your heart and your being’. She told the interviewer that she would ‘just about lay down [her] life’ to save such areas which she believed to ‘have a spiritual connection to [the] earth’. Another woman pointed out that, although she was not religious, she had a similar sense of experiencing the divine through an appreciation of nature. She described a ‘sense of wonder’, a sense of being nurtured by a miraculous ecological system ‘nestled in under an atmosphere so, so thin’, a feeling that was ‘definitely a real spiritual experience’.

Longstanding veterans of environmental campaigning who were largely Perth-based were perhaps less effusive than the activists living and protesting in the forests during 1999 but their sentiments were similar. A man in his early 40s who occupied a key organisational position made it clear that the forest holds special significance beyond its material properties. He mentioned the ‘sort of tranquillity and a beauty and a sense of interconnectedness of life and all those sorts of things which you get from a natural environment’. A politician who represented the Greens political party explained how her intense personal experiences of forest environments grounded her political views, leading her to think ‘sometimes … that land owns us rather than the other way round’. This woman went on to depict a particularly powerful experience in an ‘unlogged jarrah’ forest at a time when she was trying to decide whether or not to pursue a political career. She felt that the site itself gave her ‘a message about what [she] wanted to do’ and that this place had then become her special ‘spot’. She went on to reflect on the wider spiritual significance of the forests:

I feel that, as a society, we are increasingly secular. We’ve lost

our religions but we haven’t lost our spirituality. [M]any of us

crave spiritual insights. And I think, for ordinary people who

don’t meditate regularly or have spiritual practices, to

walk in that tall karri forest is the closest that many of us

experience to the spiritual consciousness of connectedness … I

think we come very close to that when we’re in the forest.

The perception that the forest has a strong spiritual value also provided the motivation for a young male activist in his early 20s who had spent his youth in the hill suburbs east of Perth and lived in a local southwest town and surrounds for around two years. He explained that environmental activists like him ‘are so passionate … because they see the spirituality, the connection with nature and that’s why they want to preserve [it]’. He believed that it was this spiritual component of nature that made private ownership inappropriate: ‘that’s why I sort of look at the Mother Earth as … sort of here for us to be on and experience, but who are we to start damaging [it] and saying what’s ours and putting up fences and stuff?’.

Pro-logging campaigners also articulated feelings for special places that went beyond what we might term a utilitarian appreciation of nature. One mill worker took the researcher to a place he said was known as ‘Goblin Swamp’. Tucked away in the forest, and only accessible to those with local knowledge, its old contorted paperbark trees exhibited gnarly branches, trunks and burls. This middle-aged man reflected on how this was a place where he could believe in spirits (hence the reference to goblins). Long residence in the region had furnished him with detailed knowledge of the tiny marsupial tracks and burrows in the area, the koonac (a species of freshwater crustacean, Cherax spp) shells distributed around the water edge, and various uses for the multi-coloured paperbark. He also described the beauty of the place in September when the native orchids bloom. On driving back to town, he stopped at the spectacular lookout from which he had taken an impressive photograph that was subsequently hung in his lounge room. Although some may argue about whether this forest industry worker’s appreciation for the bush could be described as ‘spiritual’, it is clear that he invests the forests with considerable emotion and sentiment–driving past some fallen branches from a big tree, he commented: ‘It’s such a sad sound when you hear a branch falling in the distance’.

Similarly indicative of appreciation of the forest’s non-economic value are industry workers’ comments on the valourising of the idea of ‘old growth’. A male employee of the government department managing the forest industry (Department of Conservation and Land Management [CALM]) explained how he had returned to a logged area after some fourteen years and had a ‘really good internal feeling’ about the regrowth, a feeling that he described as both ‘spiritual’ and ‘aesthetic’. A retired forester who had worked in the southwest industry for most of his life, also recognised ‘aesthetic’ and ‘spiritual’ values within old growth forest, but argued that re-growth after 100 years looks the same and is biologically indistinguishable. And a CALM regional manager recounted the story of a well known forest scientist who derived ‘great … personal enjoyment out of … sitting on a stump listening [to] and observing nature’, a pleasure, according to the manager, that some anti-logging campaigners found ‘disgusting’, because ‘the stump implied that the forest had been harvested and therefore it was ruined’. This interviewee himself took pleasure in regrowth forest and spent much of his recreational time fishing, catching marron (a freshwater crustacean, Cherax cainii) and bush walking.

How, then, do such sentiments derived from local environmental knowledge and often based on long-term residence, inform our analysis of identity and belonging in Australian society? Although the material presented has established that a range of Euro-Australians living in, or visiting, the southwest forests express a sense of spiritual connection to place, how do our research participants relate their land attachments to the politically contested issue of indigeneity?

Perceptions of Aboriginal spirituality in the forest

When asked about the spiritual significance of the forests, many interviewees raised the issue of Aboriginal connections to place. It is in these discussions and comments that the theme of contested senses of belonging emerged most clearly. Environmentalists tended to characterise Aboriginal Australians as icons of true belonging, role models, holders of superior spiritual knowledge, the real autochthons. More common among individuals who were pro-logging were comments about loss of spiritual knowledge within the Aboriginal community and an associated desire for economic gain. This latter view prompted a perception of Aboriginal belonging or attachment to land as being ‘no different’ from, or even less valid than, the attachments of other Australians. Finally, people in both pro- and anti-logging categories also expressed a third point of view, in which they acknowledged that although Aboriginal people had prior presence on the land, historically this did not necessarily translate into a comparatively greater claim to belonging in contemporary settings. Each of these themes deserve discussion.

People who viewed Aboriginal Australians as the ‘true’ indigenes, rightfully enjoying the greatest degree of ‘belonging’ in the landscape, assumed that Aboriginal people had strong spiritual connections to the land. Such connections were understood to arise from longstanding residence and to be generally more grounded in the landscape than the connections felt by other Australians. For example, from an anti-logging campaigner: ‘We don’t have the traditions and the spiritual base of, say, the Aboriginals … where their existence here has forged a tie with the country’.

Some interviewees spoke about the spiritual significance of the forests in terms of a mystical Aboriginal presence. An anti-logging activist aged in his 20s gave particularly vivid accounts of several incidents that he felt helped to explain his sense of the forest as a spiritual place. On one occasion, he was walking at night between two protest camps. (13)

Sensing ‘something’ walking parallel to his path, he considered investigating, but

… at the last minute I thought no, it could be anything, you

know, this whole piece of bush is old growth. It hasn’t been

touched. A lot of this bush is so old it is spiritually … you

don’t know what’s been gathering there. I’d heard a few stories,

Aboriginal myths, I guess, because there’s a lot of hollow butt

trees through that area and … they used to bury the bodies in

the hollow butts. (14)

The forest’s ‘old growth’ status, in his view, was likely to mean the presence of unknown spiritual phenomena. He considered the possibility of spiritual forces emanating from the forest, having been stirred up by logging activities: ‘It could be nature itself … It could also be the forest saying, “Don’t get too cocky and just start wandering off through deep, thick forest at night-time'”. This young man described several ‘spooky’ encounters, some of which he experienced with others living in the protest camps and traversing areas of old growth forest. His general point about recognising the spiritual and mysterious character of old growth forest, while idiosyncratic in its detail, was consistent with the opinions of other interviewees, as were his attempts to make links between his own experiences and his limited knowledge of Aboriginal culture. (15)

Similarly, a young female environmentalist made the following comments about Wattle Block, one of her favourite forest locations:

That’s a really sacred, sacred place. It’s a really intense

place. I really feel that there’s a lot of Aboriginal spirits

there. A few angry Aboriginal spirits as well … And I feel that

there was a spirit put into a tree at Wattle 1 [Block] and it’s

been cut down and I think that the spirit has been released and

it’s angry. It’s really angry…. the spirit knows … that

we’re [the protestors] there and what we’re doing. It definitely

knows what we’re doing. But it’s very powerful and it really is

quite scary.

Another activist in her early 20s commented that she was keen to learn more about the spiritual significance of the forests for Aboriginal people but that during the six months she had been at the Wattle protest camp, she had only seen one Aboriginal person visit. Her own sense of spirituality in the bush came from her childhood in Zimbabwe–and, following the advice of an old Swahili man, she called out (in Swahili) before entering a new forest block to inform the place of her approach. This woman expressed familiarity with Aboriginal senses of place, recognising spirits in trees and rocks and acknowledging the importance of not disturbing particular spots where ‘spirits … are doing their business … [and] aren’t used to having humans there’. She felt some anxiety about the need to identify sacred sites in the areas where protest activities were occurring in order to avoid offending such spirits:

We think there might be burials. Because there’s such a huge

proliferation of hollow butts … we’ve been … trying to

find … out: ‘Is this an area we should not go because it’s a

mass burial ground [or] ritual area?’ … [W]e feel a lot of the

time we’re just stomping over the sacred ground. And really

pissing off … some spirits that don’t want us there. Hence the

fact that we’re getting a lot of really weird things happening.

The contrasting view was when individuals made it very clear that they were not equating their own perspectives on the spiritual significance of forests with those of Aboriginal people. One young anti-logging activist hesitated to describe his feelings of spiritual attachment in similar terms to Aboriginal connections:

I’m trying to put it into another word but I guess I can’t

because … natural environments invoke feelings and emotions,

certainly, that in other environments [are] not at all

possible … I like to think that I have the connection but I don’t

know … I’ve grown up with an Anglo-Saxon background, a middle

class background, in the city. And the way I’ve heard Aboriginal

people speak about their spiritual connection with land makes me

think that my connection is so weak that it may as well not be

there. Because, obviously, their culture and their feelings

are so rich towards it … I’m just a product of urban


This person felt that to suggest that he had ‘a deep connection’ with land similar to that expressed by Aboriginal people, was to risk ‘arrogance’. This position dovetails with ideas about the ‘contamination’ of nature ‘by Western ways and capitalism’ (to use the words of one person), wherein Indigenous peoples are commonly constructed as ‘paragons of ecological [and spiritual] virtue’ (Ellen 1986). (16)

Counter to such views, was the rejection among other interviewees of the notion that being Aboriginal automatically implied a strong spiritual attachment to place or a desire to conserve it. As one individual commented, ‘just because someone’s Aboriginal doesn’t mean to say they’re going to have a spiritual feeling about a particular area and want to protect it’. She recalled a case where some local Aboriginal people were apparently happy to accept jobs in the logging industry, implying that such action is not compatible with spiritual attachment. A man in his 50s with a rural background observed that Aboriginal people were ‘just as capable … of wiping out a species with their four-wheel-drives and their rifles … as we are’. Some expressed doubts (if not annoyance) about depictions of Aboriginal cultural experience as somehow foreign to, or more spiritually intense than, the experiences of other Australians. A carpenter aged in his mid 40s who had been involved in the southwest antilogging campaigns for some time stated that his commitment to save the forests arose from their spiritual importance to him. He expressed clear frustration with the idea that Aboriginal people were fundamentally different: ‘What is the difference between an Aboriginal and yourself’? Aren’t you an Aboriginal to the earth somewhere along the line? So why is there a distinction?’. He commented that he could ‘feel the spirit of the Aboriginal quite strongly’ and that he recognised ‘spiritual places of theirs’ even though he was not of Aboriginal descent.

Among industry and government workers there were suspicions about assertions from Aboriginal groups and individuals concerning attachments to the forest, just as such people were sceptical about expressions of spiritual empathy with the trees coming from antilogging protestors. A small mill owner in one town complained forcefully about the idea that trees with spiritual value ‘can’t be touched’. He believed that Aboriginal people, like others, made claims based purely on a desire for financial benefit. A Shire Councillor who had spent many years as a farmer elsewhere in the southwest also had little time for discussions about the special spiritual significance of the land for Aboriginal people: ‘I really think this spiritual business has been overdone by media if you like and by White people more [than] the Aboriginal people. I could be wrong but I’ve met several Aboriginal [people] … I just don’t see it with them’.

A number of people interviewed argued, more subtly perhaps, that although Aboriginal people could rightfully claim prior attachment and belonging to place, this did not mean that their attachments were superior to those of Euro-Australians. Reflections from the manager of a large mill illustrate this point:

I know a lot of people who have a spiritual attachment with

forests … and they’re not Aboriginal…. I know a lot of

farmers who have a very spiritual attachment to their own

properties that might have gone through three or four

generations. So, that gives three or four generations as

opposed to three or four hundred generations

[in the case of Aboriginal people].

He went on to refer to spiritual attachments to land being ‘normal’ in countries such as Ireland and Scotland, the implication being that there is no surprise in the development of attachments to place amongst European settler-descendants after several generations in Australia. In his words, spiritual attachment exists ‘in terms of the history of White colonisation of Western Australia’. This man emphasised the importance of good environmental management in order to avoid ‘los[ing] the spiritual association’ through careless extraction of natural resources. While he stated ‘strong support for the Aboriginal community’, his own ‘attachment’ to land encompassed responsible and sustainable use. This interviewee characterised the environmental attachments of forest industry workers with passion. He spoke of the generations of involvement with the land, of ‘bushmen’ who ‘knew their way around the bush [and] had a really strong spiritual association with the forest’ and extensive knowledge of native species. This passion, he argued, was rarely heard or recognised because such people were not necessarily able to publicly articulate their ‘innate’ connections with the forest environments in which they work; connections which he suggested were actually ‘very similar’ to those of Aboriginal people.

The mill manager went on to describe his own ‘spiritual attachment to trees’ which he had felt ‘… ever since [he] was a kid’, but he also explained that his connection to the forests encompassed the sustainable creation of material value. He would like to be able to say: ‘Yes, I grew this forest …, I cut it down, I regenerated it and now it’s sixty year old regrowth. To me that would be an honourable attachment to forest’.

In like terms, a CALM employee, when asked, said that he had never solely regarded the forests as a source of timber. But he did believe that sustainable timber harvesting was feasible and consistent with human usage of natural resources throughout history: ‘… mankind has used forests for all sorts of reasons and not just for spiritual reasons … for building boats and houses and empires and stuff … from my point of view the challenge is to integrate and try and balance those values’. He expressed support for attempts by contemporary Nyoongar people to assert values related to the forests but he also argued that spiritual values were not solely the province of Indigenous people:

I’d say that those spiritual values … certainly, don’t just

belong to Aboriginal people, they belong to all people. Even though

some people might be a bit scared about using that word spiritual

or having any religious connotation to describing it, they might

call it recreation but … even the word ‘recreation’ means to be

recreated, to be renewed or refreshed by going out into the natural


Spirituality, belonging and indigeneity in the southwest forests

The recurrent presence of references to Aboriginal beliefs and values in non-Aboriginal discourses about spirituality and belonging to land draws attention to some of the dilemmas faced by settler-descendants trying to articulate, explore and grapple with their attachments to place in a postcolonial setting. No doubt some scholars would quickly frame the material presented in this paper in terms of a simple form of postcolonial ‘appropriation’ of Indigenous cultural understandings about spirituality in the land. (17) However, our approach is more sympathetic to citizens seeking to articulate their identity in relation to the landscapes of an evolving settler-descendant society. We seek to do justice to the complexity of motivations and identity issues underlying Australians’ relations with environments such as the forests.

As with Dominy’s (1995, 2001) work on high country sheep farmers in New Zealand, and Paine’s (2000) broader reflections on the dilemmas of settler-descendant identity in Canada and elsewhere, we find a blunt critique of Euro-Australian relations with land to be inadequate. The assumed nexus between Aboriginality, indigeneity and an authentic status of belonging in the landscape of Australia is worthy of more nuanced analysis, some of which has begun. Morton and Smith (1999: 173) comment that in many respects, the concept of ‘indigeneity’ is a ‘fiction’, if it implies that ‘more recent Australian migrants cannot be indigenous and must therefore be alienated’ from the land that is their home. They suggest that, like introduced animals and plants, non-Aboriginal Australians are in fact ‘indigenous to this land, already a part of its nature, already at home here’ (1999: 175). George Seddon (forthcoming: 1; Trigger 2003: 100) would agree, defining Australian nativeness in terms of place of birth.

Euro-Australian reflections on the spiritual significance of the southwest forests provide a window through which to examine this issue. Though most people interviewed said they had little direct experience of Aboriginal people’s views on the forests, when considering their own ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ sentiments, many made references to the presence of Aboriginal values in the bush. What do such reflections tell us about cultural identity construction in relation to the Australian landscape? How do they fit with narratives stressing the moral superiority of Aboriginal belonging? Indeed, how might this material contribute to a more sophisticated theorisation of the notion of ‘indigeneity’ in a nation like Australia?

This case study poses and addresses these questions, without pretending to answer them in any final way. We have reported considerable diversity of views, showing that perceptions of spiritual significance in the forests are common in both anti- and pro-logging discourses. It is not just in their mutual consideration of Aboriginal values that anti- and prologging individuals overlap in so far as their sentiments have been recorded in this project. All of the people cited are in agreement that southwest forests embody more than utilitarian values, though there are significant differences of opinion on the extent to which forest resources should be harvested. Although there are, undoubtedly, some people not represented here–who would challenge the idea that forests have intrinsic spiritual value, the evidence suggests that there is more agreement between pro- and anti-logging campaigners on this matter than is usually acknowledged.

Thus, sentiments about belonging, attachment and spiritual significance are intimately entwined in discourses about place. These feelings are expressed, albeit in different ways, among both pro- and anti-logging campaigners. Both groups connect their views about use and/or preservation of the forests to their sense of aesthetic appreciation and personal experiences of trees; indeed, both positions partly seek to establish a moral right to articulate their views by reference to the intensity of their personal connections to and/or experiences of the forest.

In the context of a particular dispute over natural resource management, the Euro-Australians quoted above appear to be exploring the extent to which they are ‘indigenous’ or ‘autochthonous’ to the land, and if so what rights of belonging and usage such a status might entitle them to. Hence, the general point we seek to make is that who and what ‘belongs’ in Australian landscapes and ecosystems, who and what can be ‘indigenous’, and who gets to decide is tied to how people think about cultural identity. Such intellectual grappling with what ‘belongs’, as part of both Australian nature and the Australian nation, emerges from this research as a significant dimension of how people think about the forest issue. We find this to be an underlying theme in debates about practical and scientific matters that attempt to define the best environmental and economic outcomes in the management of natural resources. To this extent, discourses about spiritual belonging, explored through attachments to forest places in this instance, are revealing for how we understand land, culture and identity in Australian society.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at ‘A Forest Conscienceness’: 6th National Conference of the Australian Forest History Society, 12-17 September 2004, Augusta, Western Australia. The paper arises out of a larger research project conducted between 1999 and 2002 and focused on land, culture and resource development in Western Australia. We are grateful for financial support from the Australian Research Council (Discovery Grant DP0345224) and the Discipline of Anthropology and Sociology at The University of Western Australia. We wish to acknowledge the interviewing and participant observation skills of two research assistants who worked on the southwest region aspects of the project during 1999, Adele Millard and Stephanie Hammill. Thanks also to Celmara Pocock and Yann Toussaint for comments on the manuscript.


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(1.) This government-administered process was a nationally implemented ‘mechanism … to formally and publicly address policy-making and management of strategic environmental resource[s]’ (Hillier 2002: 58), in this case forests.

(2.) Lengthy semi-structured ethnographic interviews were recorded with 25 anti-logging and 29 prologging people respectively. The majority were residing in the southwest region of Western Australia, with some being based in the city of Perth.

(3.) Satterfield (2002) reveals a similar blurring of stereotypes in her description of a forest-related dispute in Oregon, USA. While loggers and environmentalists appeared superficially sensitive to scientific explanations, there were in fact strong emotional responses shaping the discourses of both parties.

(4.) Milton (2002) argues that emotion acts as a powerful motivating force for human action in the context of environmental disputes.

(5.) Many writers have tried to document and explore Euro-Australian feelings of spiritual belonging and ‘sense of place’ over the years, at times partly through autobiographical reflection. For some recent examples see Read (1996, 2000, 2002), Seddon (1997), Plumwood (2000), Bonyhady and Griffiths (2002b), Probyn (2002), Arthur (2003), Cameron (2003), Schultz (2003), and Tredinnick (2003).

(6.) These terms need considerable unpacking in the context of discussions about belonging. Although they overlap in a technical sense, they also have a conventional usage that we invoke here in order to encompass different waves of migrants and their descendants, from those commonly described as settlers who were among the first non-Aboriginal people to arrive in various regions, to those who have come to Australia in recent years. It is also worth noting that many people self-identifying as Aboriginal Australians share some settler/migrant ancestry and heritage.

(7.) Millions of acres of trees have been cleared from the Australian landscape to make way for agricultural crops and livestock. In Western Australia alone over 28 million acres of land had been cleared for agricultural production by the late 1960s with serious long-term environmental consequences (Beresford et al. 2001: 62-63). Native trees have also been systematically removed from urban areas, a phenomenon that Boyd (1968: 93) attributed to the ‘arboraphobia’ that he felt Australians experienced when confronted with the ‘undisciplined’ nature of eucalypts in comparison to trees introduced from Europe.

(8.) See Trigger (1999) for further discussion of the contesting community positions in this Western Australian debate. For a comparative perspective on similar issues in New South Wales see Peace (1996, 1999), in British Columbia, Canada see Trigger (1996) and, in Oregon, USA see Satterfield (2002).

(9.) Another division emerged between local expressions of attachment to place that were based on intimate knowledge and long-term association, and the more abstract attachments to ‘nature’ or ‘forests’ in general that environmental campaigners based outside the region tended to describe.

(10.) The definition of ‘spirituality’ was frequently questioned during the interviews and several people who claimed to be non-religious ended up acknowledging that they did have spiritual feelings for certain places or for the land in general. Some inserted different words such as ‘significance’, ‘attachment’, ‘affinity’, ’empathy’ or ‘resonance” as alternatives to ‘spirituality’. In a survey of relevant textual and census data, Worth (2004) uses the term ‘post-material values’ for such sentiments; however, unlike our approach, he finds these views only among anti-logging groups in southwest Western Australia. Worth links the response of ‘no religious affiliation’ to anti-logging attitudes; whereas our own material prompts consideration of ‘spiritual’ experiences of the forest among people articulating both pro- and anti-logging views.

(11.) All quotations are taken from recorded interviews conducted in 1999.

(12.) Respectively, Eucalyptus guilfoylei, Eucalyptus diversicolor and Eucalyptus marginata.

(13.) Named ‘Dragonfly’ and ‘Platypus’, the camps’ nomenclature appears to have been consciously emblematic of the protestors’ desire to fit their presence into the natural environment even though there are no wild platypus populations in Western Australia.

(14.) This man was not the only person to mention the idea of Aboriginal spirits in trees, and the view is likely derived from contemporary Nyoongar (southwest Aboriginal) views. Although our own research has so far not involved substantial inquiries among Aboriginal people, such beliefs have been mentioned in other sources. A number of people quoted in McCabe (1997-8) speak of the traditional belief that deceased persons” ‘spirits’ (termed kaarny) could be ‘caught’ and placed in trees or ‘stumps’ (among other locations in the bush). Tree locations were regarded as desirable for the spirits which continued to mediate between Nyoongar persons and the realm of extra-human phenomena (McCabe 1997-8: 6). Based on her recordings carried out during the decade following 1900, Bates (1992: 150-3) reports a particular species as traditionally regarded as the tree of the dead this is moodjyar (‘ghost bush’), or Nuytsia floribunda, also known commonly as the Western Australian Christmas Tree (or ‘Christmas Bush’ as Bates describes it); McCabe’s key Nyoongar informant on this matter did not believe any specific tree was the domain of deceased spirits (1997-8: 6, fn.2), but rather that any species can be attributed this significance in Nyoongar traditions. The further difference from contemporary Nyoongar views is that Bates (1992: 153) does not mention ‘stumps’ or ‘hollow butts’ (McCabe 1997-8: 6, fn.3), but rather that disembodied spirits of recently deceased persons ‘rested on the branches’ of the Christmas Bush en route to their ‘heavenly home’ at a location ‘beyond the western sea’.

(15.) This person commented that he did not ‘know enough” about Aboriginal culture and spirituality and that he wished more Aboriginal people ‘would get into the environmental movement’. This desire reflects assumptions within the movement about the overlap between Aboriginal and environmentalist agendas.

(16.) See Milton (1998: 98) for an additional critique of this ‘environmentalist myth’.

(17.) For illustrative discussions of such analyses, and the issues involved, see Morton (1996), St John (2001) and Brown (2003).

David Trigger and Jane Mulcock

Anthropology and Sociology, The University of Western Australia

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