Reflection

How Do I Care For Country?

“How I care for Country differs from how I care for whenua – for the lands of my birth.” Dr Christine Winter reflects on what it means to love a land that has become home.

On Gundungurra Country, an Australian Native Bee collects nectar from a rare Pink Flannel Flower, which blooms only after fire. Image by Ken Griffiths, via Shutterstock ID: 1910632309.

Saturday 16 January 2021 — a typical Sydney summer day: dry, big blue skies, tepid heat rising to searing, city dust and asphalt. A day on which SEI began a week of remembrance; a requiem for those lost in the bushfires that raged down the east coast of Australia the year before. A week to remember the other-than-human sacrificed in infernos. A week to mourn, to reflect on early 2020 – atypical Sydney summer days and days: dry, big ochre ash skies, searing heat rising to intolerable, burnt bodies of our multispecies co-citizens and displaced soil.

As we opened the week of Requiem I was asked, as a settler to this nation, what it means to me to care for Country. My answer was inadequate. My only excuse, that I think slowly. I need to sit with big questions and let my answers percolate through, to bubble to coherence.

“I was asked, as a settler to this nation, what it means to me to care for Country. How I care for Country differs from how I care for whenua – for the lands of my birth, of my ancestors back to the waka Takitimu and before.”

How I engage with Country, how I care for Country, differs from how I care for whenua – for the lands of my birth, of my ancestors back to the waka Takitimu and before. I don’t need to think to know how I care for whenua. I care with all my soul.

But:

How do I care for Country that does not feel right — too hot, too still, too hard?

How do I care for Country that does not smell right — too dusty, too parched, too brittle?

How do I care for Country that does not sound right — too raucous, too echoey, too busy?

How do I care for Country that does not look right — too bright, too wide, too ochre?

How do I care for Country that does not taste right — too dry, too gritty, too crumbly?

This rocked me to my core. How can I, a citizen of this country, continue to live on Country that is so foreign? What place can I hold when what comes rushing to the fore are all those ‘too’s’? How can I claim a place to stand when I stand with an impulse of deficit, of what is missing, of what is not?

And yet I do care for Country. Both emotionally and literally. So to return to the original question of January 16 2021, how do I care for Country?

I love the way the thick and oft’ time muggy air holds me in its warm embrace. The way the sun warms my bones. I celebrate the heat and dry, the salty surf and dry leafed walks. I revel in the regular reverberations of rolling thunder off the escarpment on our regular weekend retreats.

“I love the way the thick and oft’ time muggy air holds me in its warm embrace. The way the sun warms my bones. I celebrate the heat and dry, the salty surf and dry leafed walks. “

I’ve grown to distinguish the smell of eucalyptus from the dusty background, to breathe in deeply and thank those elegant rising giants for their health-giving oils and life-giving oxygen. I’ve grown to love them for who they are and not who they are not. I’ve found the petrichor I miss along river banks, and deep in the bush. The previously foreign smell of a summer storm as it rises from the streets steamy and thick is a sign of life, of hope, of renewal and refreshment.

I marvel at the beauty of the raucous birds who wake me with their dawn discussions. I laugh as the teen-like gangs of silver crested cockatoos squawk and screech their aerial messages as they rip past our apartment. I’m impressed by the adaptive ibis who defy habitat destruction by invading the inner city. I collect and photograph the brilliant feathers of the parakeets shed in the paddocks of our weekend retreats and watch as the kookaburra pluck worms from sandy soils.

“I’ve listened to the soil’s instructions, seeking out native plants to grow in its porous grit: plants that belong with Country, not those who like me are foreign.”

I’ve listened to the soil’s instructions, seeking out native plants to grow in its porous grit: plants that belong with Country, not those who like me are foreign. I eschew those which cannot withstand long weeks of dry. Instead I’ve found those that love Country like I have learned to do.

I love the big clear skies and long long sight lines. Watching the edge of thunderous storms come rolling across the cityscape fills me with awe and tense delight. The glowing beach sands and dancing sparkle of cooling summer seas pattern my holidays. And ochre is now the background colour of life.

I’ve learned new flavours. I’ve absorbed them. The flavours of this land no longer surprise, no longer repel. They are the flavours of my everyday, the background taste of life.

“So when the fires roared and filled our every day things did not feel right, smell right, sound right, look right, taste right. Things were not right. And I grieve.”

So when the fires roared and filled our every day things did not feel right, smell right, sound right, look right, taste right. Things were not right. And I grieve: for Country that is not my country. I grieve for Country I have grown to love, that like a newborn has weedled its way into my heart. It’s under my skin, in my ears and lungs and lodged in my senses as home.


Christine Winter is a lecturer in the Department of Government & International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses at the intersection of intergenerational, indigenous and environmental justice. Drawing on her Anglo-Celtic-Māori cultural heritage she is interested in decolonising political theory by identifying key epistemological and ontological assumptions in theory that are incompatible with indigenous philosophies. In doing so she has two aims: to make justice theory just for Indigenous peoples of the settler states; and to expand the boundaries of theories of intergenerational justice to protect the environment for future generations of Indigenous Peoples and their settler compatriots. Christine Winter is the Research Lead on The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture.