Uncommon Ground: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental Values

Uncommon Ground: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental Values – Review

Rosita Henry

Veronica Strang. Oxford and New York: Berg, 1997. xiv, 309pp., figs, bibliog., index. UK[pounds]34.99 (Hc.), ISBN 1- 85973-946-6; UK[pounds]14.99 (Pb.), ISBN 1-85973-951-2.

Rosita Henry Anthropology and Archaeology, James Cook University

Uncommon Ground is a comparative study of the environmental values of Aboriginal (Yir Yoront, Kokobera and Kunjen) peoples, now settled mainly at Kowanyama in Cape York, and the non-Aboriginal pastoralists living and working on cattle stations in the traditional homelands of these peoples. The book is arranged in four parts. Part I, entitled ‘Landscapes of the Past’, provides the historical context for the ethnography. The author examines the different experiences of Aborigines and pastoralists of the exploration and settlement of Cape York. She considers the influence of historical events, and their interpretation, on the contemporary social and environmental relations of the two groups. In Part II, headed ‘Cultural Landscapes’, the author focuses on ‘the cultural forms in which environmental values are most clearly evident’. She examines the economic activities and socio-spatial organisation of each group. In Part III the author turns to the ‘culturally specific processes of socialisation’ through which environmental values are learned, while in Part IV she compares the cosmological beliefs of each group. Finally, the author notes ‘the influence of the land itself on the human environmental equation’, before summarising in tabular form the cultural particularities of the two groups and those features which she concludes ‘encourage or discourage the development of affective values about the land’.

My reading of this book is coloured by the fact that before being asked to review it for TAJA, I had already looked at it to evaluate its suitability as a text for a regionally focused first year anthropology subject. My initial response on picking up the book was one of excitement at the possibility that here, at last, was a study which might, in its exploration of human-environmental relations, actually take into account the complexity of the contemporary social situation in Australia. I was looking for a book that adequately explored the political and economic interface between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Unfortunately, upon reading the book I found that Strang’s analysis was limited in this respect by her focus on values, and on culture as a bounded real-world object.

However, I have decided that, in spite of the book not being what I was initially looking for, its particular ethnographic focus and the fact that it is well structured, with arguments clearly expressed, make it an excellent reading indeed for students. While I am uneasy about the tabular form in which the author summarises the environmental values of each group, this could prove useful for teaching purposes by providing a good framework for discussion. Indeed Strang recognises that her simplification ‘is a little dangerous’ (p.285).

I particularly enjoyed the very interesting ethnographic account of the pastoralists. For me the sections on the pastoralists were even more fascinating than those on the Aboriginal peoples due to my previous anthropological exposure to ethnography on Aboriginal people and to the comparative dearth of ethnography on non-Aboriginal people in Australia. Veronica Strang’s ethnography is a timely contribution to a refreshing shift in ethnographic focus occurring in Australia today. I must also confess that part of my enjoyment of this ethnography was personal. Having spent holidays during my teens on a cattle station in North Queensland, not far from the stations described by the author, I found much nostalgic pleasure in reading her detailed comparative account of the socio-spatial organisation of these stations.

I continue, however, to have reservations about the author’s analytical approach. She constructs too neat a divide between Aborigines and pastoralists, as indicated, for example, by such phrases as: ‘each set of cultural forms’, ‘each expression of culture’, ‘each cultural mode’, ‘in any culture’, ‘each culture . . . acted according to its own values and beliefs’, ‘the human environmental relationship . . . differs from one culture to the next’, and ‘Aboriginal culture’ and ‘Western culture’ (each in the singular). Her hard focus on values and on culture means that in her discussion of Aboriginal relationships with land Strang unavoidably gives precedence to ‘the traditional’. There is little exploration of political practices of country that take place in the contemporary bureaucratic context of community organisations, land councils, and native title representative bodies. It is only because she has not adequately explored such practices that she is able to write that:

. . . compared to Aboriginal social organisation, the cattle station community is far less homogenous, being characterised by divided strata, transience, and fragmentation. Social relations range from very close (familial and permanent) to loose social or economic associations that are seen as impermanent and fluid. Most individuals interact with many networks – family, social group, employer/employees and State – some of which change continually and rapidly. (p.142)

All of the above applies to Aboriginal people as well. In particular, I suggest that Aboriginal people interact, or are forced to interact, more immediately than any pastoralist, with a continually and rapidly changing State bureaucratic order.

All in all this book is a worthwhile read. Because of its very topical subject matter it should have a wide appeal. It could very usefully be read by anyone interested in the burgeoning field of environmental studies and will be of particular interest to people concerned with the relationship between green issues and indigenous land rights, not just in Australia but also internationally.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Australian Anthropological Society

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