Spotted Goanna : Where Keystone Species and Dreamtime Being intersect

In today’s post I get to the heart of the idea that underpins the whole Rock Art 4 Rewilding thing: unifying nature and culture through totemism as ecological metaphor.

The Dreamtime

First, what do I mean by totemism?

One of the old hunter gatherer rock art cultures that we actually know something concrete about is the one from Australia. We know that they had -and still have – a concept of a time of origins, which is conventionally known as the Dreamtime. We know that the Dreamtime is a time of great ancestral animal beings whose activities in the deep past shaped the world and brought into being patterns of activity that paved the way for the right way of living on the land. We know that the landscape is written with the memory of these stories, with features of the land being lasting testaments to the events that occurred there, and with some special features being the bodies of those beings when they became one with the land when the events were done. We know that for these people, a connection to this Dreamtime must be maintained and we know that the practise of rock art at these special places is one of the ways the potency of the Dreamtime – its ability to infuse and enrich the present – is maintained.

Art making as a re-enactment of Dreamtime creations

Because this rock art is about the process of creation, with the act of making the rock art image dissolving the artist back into the Dreamtime moment of primordial creation, it is a practise that is more about performance and mythic re-enactment than it is about the finished product. This is incredibly freeing. When you create rock art in this tradition, it isn’t just a competition about who can create the most realistic image. It’s about how deep you can get into the spirit of the thing.

A Fusion of Old and New: Dreamtime as Ecological Metaphor

But for me it’s not all about escaping to ancient ways of being in the world in order to leave behind modern ways of seeing. There’s actually a lot of scope for a new fusion, I think, between the Dreamtime as a cultural concept and that branch of modern science that becomes more important every day: ecology.

For me the idea of the Dreamtime – a deeply ancient period that is in some sense still present – is easy enough to equate with the scientific idea of evolutionary time, during which the various organisms of nature came into being and assumed their patterns of form and behaviour, patterns that are still present, still played out. Ecology understands that each species has evolved to fill a particular niche in the ecological landscape, and if they lose that niche and can’t find a close analogue for it, they’re in trouble. It was during the Dreamtime that the various procedures for living life on the land emerged, yet the Dreamtime still mysteriously encompasses and guides the present moment. And keeping with this analogy, the totemic physical landscape with its mythologised hills and rocks becomes a metaphor for the ecological landscape, with the right order that emerged and which is to be maintained taking the form of an ecosystem. There are certain keystone species whose presence is particularly important to the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem, and so the Dreamtime animal beings whose great bodies became one with the landscape in the form of rocks, hills, mountains and so on – these can stand for those keystone creatures that have had such a longstanding impact that other organisms have evolved around that impact, so that these keystone species are likewise lasting features of the ecological landscape. Were they to disappear, the land would be downgraded because all those other organisms that are used to them being there would reduce in numbers or disappear completely, leading to a loss of biodiversity and thus a loss of the robustness of the system’s ability to deal with whatever may come.

An animal like, say, a tiger, can be kept alive, with human intervention, in an environment that isn’t what it evolved for, like, say, a cramped city  Zoo, but its endless pacing back and forth is clear evidence that it is not happy; it needs to express its natural behaviour. The same goes for the animals that humans raise in battery farms, kept alive with antibiotics even though they’re sick; it’s no life for them. So we can go beyond cold, dry equations here, and consider that a high-functioning ecological landscape where the niches animals evolved for are still present…this is also landscape of fulfilment for the various stakeholders. And that goes for us too. Rewilded areas stir something natural in ourselves. And the fact that we engaged with nature in various ways including the creation of animal image rock art for many, many thousands of years suggests to me that it is a natural behavioural expression for us, and that might be part of why it feels good. I refer you back to my earlier points about doing paleo style art as I way to open a dialogue with your inner paleo self.

But back to the Dreamtime=Evolutionary Time analogy. I think the power of this analogy – where the Dreamtime-mythologised physical landscape is a metaphor for the deep-time evolved ecological landscape – derives from the fact that the physical landscape and the ecological landscape really are scarcely distinguishable from each other; ecosystems are what happen on landscapes when they’re left to their own devices.

The Goanna: both Keystone Species and Dreamtime Landscape Being

The Australian monitor lizard came to mind because it stands at the intersection between the ecological and Dreamtime landscapes, between the modern concept of a keystone species and the totemic concept of a Dreamtime animal, and that’s why I chose it for my piece of rock art.

In Australia monitor lizards are known as goannas, and in the Bundjalung area on the West Coast it’s the great goanna that is the primary Dreamtime totem of the local clan. It’s called Dirawong. There are various versions of the story of this creature. It was one of the beings that rose up out of timeless slumber in the Dreamtime and shaped the landscape during its battle with the Rainbow Serpent, including creating the course of a river that flowed out into the sea, before eventually settling into the landscape as a fixed form itself: the Evans Head headland that juts out into the ocean near this estuary. An ochre deposit on the top of this headland is said to be the wound where the Rainbow Serpent bit it, with the ochre being the blood of the Goanna. This ochre is held to be sacred, containing the potency of Dirawong, and the people apply it to the skin as body decoration in ceremonies, thus strengthening their quasi-ancestral connection to this being and its potency.

The Dirawong story does seem to lend itself very well to an ecological reading, because according to some versions, Dirawong attacked the Rainbow Serpent because the latter was trying to attack a bird and the goanna wanted to protect the bird. Snakes do eat birds and goannas do eat snakes, and this part of the story is echoed by the way that the goanna, as an apex predator, is a keystone species: if it were to be removed, there would be an imbalance in the system, a trophic cascade, a knock on effect cascading through the food chain; for example it might indeed be that there would be too many snakes and this could indeed lead to a reduction in the number of birds, which would have further knock on effects. Apex predators really can affect the course of rivers, as with the reintroduced wolves of Yellow Stone: by reducing the overgrazing of deer they allowed trees to grow again by the rivers which shored up the banks and changed the way the water flowed over the land.

I don’t know whether there was a time when the people in this part of Australia hunted too many goannas, noticed the impact this had on the other wildlife, and then chose to limit the hunting of the goanna to allow what we would now call rewilding. It’s entirely possible. But either way, the story fits the ecological narrative perfectly.

Also fitting with this is the way that this lizard, Dirawong, is directly associated with the order that emerged out of the Dreamtime and which is to be maintained if nature is to continue to be high-functioning, for Dirawong is believed by the people to have taught the correct way to live on the land.

There are other ways that monitor lizards are keystones, beyond the role as apex predator. It’s been found that yellow spotted monitors bury their eggs in burrows as deep as four metres underground and a whole host of other animals then repurpose these as their own burrows, nests and places to seek refuge. If the monitor lizards were to disappear, then a literal ecological niche in the landscape would be lost – these burrows. Gopher tortoises in the USA play a keystone role for a similar reason, their borrows being used by a vast array of other animals.

Among the many things that Dirawong taught the people was how to create rock art, which also uses the ochre – its own blood – as the substance. We could make a literal interpretation of the way that this lizard is seen as a teacher of body decoration and painting techniques, because the markings along its back are a series of spots that look like they could have been done by finger painting with yellow ochre, encouraging people to create similar patterns on their own skin with ochre paint for special occasions such as ceremonial dances in which they renew their connection to the totem.

Totemic peoples believe direct contact with sacred Earth pigment paint gives them a quazi-ancestral connection to the Dreamtime beings whose potency the paint is believed to embody, which provides the flexibility for newcomers to join a clan and acquire its totemic ancestors, but also connects them to nature. The ochre-blood of Dirawong and many other similar Dreamtime figures is in the land in the sacred places where it was spilled in the Dreamtime events, in the animals descended from the being and painted into being from that blood, and in the people who paint themselves with this same substance. So there is a three-fold consubstantiality connecting land, people and animals. Another example is Marlu, the Dreamtime red kangaroo, whose blood spilt when it was being hunted became the big ochre deposit at Wilgie Mia. Kangaroos are also ecosystem engineers in Australia, with studies showing that there are places where there was increased biodiversity where they grazed.

Dirawong: Teacher of Spot Art

We still like the feeling of belonging to a tribe, and engaging directly with Earth pigments can feel like an induction into a tribe that has no other, no enemy, because it encompasses all of us: the Earth Tribe, the People of Ochre in its many shades. We at least want the practise of rock art to be as hands on as possible so it can be a healthy counterbalance to the preponderance of digitally created images in the modern world.

As the teacher of finger painting and body decoration, Dirawong seems to draw us into an artistic engagement with the Earth and with nature, which I think has enormous value. Even in the current age, artistic engagement with rewilding is an important element of community uptake, facilitating a big shift in how it’s framed. Wherever we find communities who have embraced the reintroduction or conservation of a particular wild animal, we find them congealing this energy of communal enthusiasm into works of art that then radiate these positive feelings. Think of the German town of Bad Harzburg, which has taken the reintroduced lynx to its heart and expressed this through a number of sculptures; or the way the people of North East England have welcomed the reintroduction of red kites with the local buses being covered in red kite artwork; and in Africa’s first community-owned elephant sanctuary, the Reteti sanctuary in northern Kenya, the enthusiasm for conserving the elephant radiates from a wonderful contemporary large-scale piece of rock art of an elephant. There are many other examples, such as the bronze Golden Eagle sculpture in Glendoe in Scotland, and the giant 50-ton American bison monument in Jamestown in North Dakota.

For me personally, it’s the old practise of rock art that seems like a particularly appropriate medium for expressing ideas about keystone species who are part of the landscape, because both the rock and the paints made out of Earth pigment are themselves literally parts of the landscape, and more specifically the pigments soak int the rock and become a part of it.

I’ve gone for the contemporary Australian dot art style here around my rock art Goanna. This style evolved relatively recently, in the context of a non-aboriginal art market, but since it emerged it has always been associated with telling the stories of the Dreaming. I chose it here partly to make the piece more eye catching, but also because the dot art style comes out of the much older aboriginal traditions of body painting, where spots of colour added by finger painting are a common feature. This seems to be appropriate for this particular piece because of this way that the monitor has natural spots of colour of a similar type, as if it too has been decorated by finger painting.

Stay natural.

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