Trust and Our Children: Tony Birch Reflects on the Story of Bunjil the Eagle

Tony Birch reflects on the significance of Bunjil the Eagle, a story about country and custodianship - and what it says about contemporary Australians' botched custodianship of our environment. What legacy are we leaving our children with our inaction - and what kind of example are we setting?

Bunjil Shelter – The Black Ranges, Western Victoria

Bunjil Shelter, Black Ranges, Western Victoria

Bunjil’s Shelter is the most significant Aboriginal rock-art site in south-eastern Australia. It is also one of the oldest shelters, at around 6,000 years. Tourists visit the site each year to photograph the artwork. Many leave without knowing the important story that the artwork represents. It is a story about country and custodianship. It is also a story about the protection of children, the care and leadership we provide them, and the future protection of the country we entrust in them. The story simply stated, within Aboriginal culture, is that Bunjil the Eagle watches over all children from the sky and endeavours to keep them safe. This is not simply a ‘fairytale’ or folklore (in a dismissive sense). The story of Bunjil has vital meaning in contemporary Australia for Aboriginal people. The story also acts as a guiding point for the sustenance of all peoples and the environment.

If we think we deserve something more, we have no alternative but to act with greater energy and conviction.

The Bunjil story within Koori (Aboriginal) communities in Victoria comes with a high level of responsibility. It is incumbent upon adults and parents to care for our children. It is important that we provide them with education. That we nurture them both emotionally and intellectually. In return we hope that when our children grow they will accept the responsibility of caring for each other and the environment. This is the trust we place in our own actions and their acceptance of responsibility that comes with age.

Some might read the above as a naive and simplistic statement; be they realists, cynics or pessimists. They may be right – on occasion. In Aboriginal communities we have sometimes failed to live up to the expectations we rightly impose upon ourselves (although far less so than the ceaseless ‘doomsday’ media portrayals of our communities). What is more common, in Victoria at least, is that in providing guidance to our children, to both teenagers and younger kids, we are reaping the reward of young people increasingly taking a lead in working with the environment. As they come to accept the role of custodian, they in turn find trust in their own decisions. Put simply, the satisfaction that comes with the job justifies whatever sacrifice they make.

Last weekend a friend of mine, Stephen Muecke, a writer from Sydney, came to stay with our family for the weekend. Things went pretty well (except that my father is quite sick in hospital – he will recover, I’m sure). The weather was fine, sunny and clear; my football team, Carlton, played out a dramatic draw against an arch rival, Essendon, in front of 60,000 people. On Saturday night we had a great dinner at a Greek restaurant with my closest friend, Chris Healy (also a writer) and my wife, Sara (a writer, academic and all-round extraordinary woman).

On Sunday morning, with the football and dinner over, talk turned to our concern not so much for the realities of climate change, but the current Australian government’s inaction on the issue. As often happens, the conversation shifted to our own responsibilities and the action we need to take to shift the government’s position. We wondered – as we often do – if what we do, write, has any impact at all. While, naturally, we hoped it does, we weren’t at all certain. We then spoke about our children, (I have five, Stephen has three), and young people in general. While neither of us wanted to feel that we’ve let our children down in failing to live with the environment – although, in fact collectively we have failed – we had to accept that any sense of disinterest our kids might convey around issues such as climate change is an outcome of the lack of responsibility and leadership provided within institutions of power, such as mainstream politics and media.

These institutions are of our own making. I’m a believer in the mantra that we get the politicians we deserve. In Australia, the shallowness of the environmental policy trumpeted by conservatives and been more than matched by the Labor side of politics. Inaction, outside the dedicated environmental and activist movement, is a shared experience in Australia. If we think we deserve something more, we have no alternative but to act with greater energy and conviction. If we do not do so we cannot expect our children to trust us. Nor can we expect to entrust the environment to them.

Looking for Bunjil – outside my front gate

Looking for Bunjil — outside the front gate

To return to Bunjil. The eagle’s protection of children is unconditional. The role ascribed to Bunjil is in recognition of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual leadership. Nor is the nurturing of the young by Bunjil contingent; there is no expectation that at some time in the future those children will grow into the role of responsibility, that they will, without question, reciprocate the care provided to them. This may not appear, at first, to be a great deal. That eagle, up there in the sky puts in an enormous effort, looking after the young. There is no guarantee of gratitude. Consider then, how both powerful and tender the contract becomes when children do recognise all that hard work the eagle has done – for them. They come to trust the eagle and respond accordingly. If we want our kids to show interest in the environment and to fight for it when necessary, if we want them to trust us, we’ll have to get up there in the sky and do the work.

Portrait of Tony Birch

Tony Birch is the author of Ghost River, which won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing, and Blood, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. He is also the author of Shadowboxing, and three short story collections – Father’s Day, The Promise and Common People.

Tony is a frequent contributor to ABC local and national radio, and a regular guest at writers’ festivals. He lives in Melbourne and is a Senior Research Fellow at Victoria University.

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