Animals Make Us Human: Land and Cockatoos

By Kirli Saunders in conversation with Sarah Jacob | 13 Feb 21

Animals Make Us Human is a collection of writings by scientists, storytellers and photographers, edited by Leah Kaminsky and Meg Kenneally. It is a reflection on the devastating bushfires of 2019/20 and a celebration of the fascinating and unique wildlife who call our broad continent home. Proceeds from the book support the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy. In this two-part series, two of the book’s contributors delve deeper into the book’s subject matter, in conversation with Right Now’s Managing Editor Sarah Jacob. 

Kirli Saunders is a proud Gunai woman, writer and poet. In 2020 she was named NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year. She wrote about glossy black cockatoos in Animals Make Us Human.

As a Gunai woman, can you describe your personal connection with the wildlife of your country?

Like a lot of First Nations people, we have a strong history of dispossession and removal, some of my family was raised on missions, and my mum was a state ward in children’s homes. Connecting to country, no matter where I’ve lived, particularly on Gundungurra land, where I was born and raised, I feel that belonging in the landscape and with community around caring for country. The glossies are a sacred bird, there are dreaming stories about them all along the coast. They are such an important bird culturally and talking about the connection to country, the need to care for them custodially, and the importance of them always being there, so that we can continue our dreaming. It’s a really important thing to bring awareness of, as a storyteller. 

How did you react to the 2019/20 bushfire season?

There were fires on my grandmother’s country – Gunai country – and my mother’s country – Yuin country. It was heartbreaking to watch those matrilineal landscapes burn in a catastrophic way, that could have been avoided if we cared for country traditionally. The glossy black was already threatened on Gundungurra country, but the fires affected their nesting and feeding activities. 

Many people don’t understand what traditional land management is all about. What is your experience of this, with respect to cultural burning in particular?

I’m by no means an expert on this, just a very proud advocate of people who are doing this work. I experienced cultural burning through Bundanon Trust who worked alongside Firesticks for their annual conference. I got to meet Adrian Webster and Jacob Morris, who are two incredible young custodians who are caring for country through cultural burning on Yuin land, particularly along the Shoalhaven River. I was in awe of the way that they could read country. They talked to me about ‘upside-down’ country when all of the undergrowth is overgrown and therefore sucking the nutrients away from the gums. It would almost look like the bush was upside down – the canopy is sparse and lots of invasive vines grow below. The cultural burning seeks to reestablish the original landscape by removing the invasive weeds. It’s done in patches rather than this big long line of fire. It’s done throughout the year in repeated cycles and delivered by people who have been taught to read the land by Elders. 

It’s almost certain that we can look forward to more catastrophic bushfire seasons in the years to come. What hope do you hold on to that we as Australians can change that?

We definitely can change it. Colonisation has deeply impacted how we relate to the Earth, and ways in which we care for the Earth. I hope it takes much less than 250 years to turn it all around. There’s such a wealth of knowledge in our traditional ways that we can tap into, and match those with contemporary science to make a difference. 

What do you think people lose as they grow into adults that you think should be retained from childhood, with respect to the natural world?

Children are our emerging custodians. They’re so much closer to the land, they play outside more regularly than we do and they are curious, so they make excellent people to yarn with about how to care for country. So it’s my hope that in sharing stories about conservation our young people will be convinced to care. 

[As adults] we spend so much more time inside, don’t we? In buildings, with concrete beneath our feet, always rushing around. Spending time with preschoolers means that we are constantly looking at the relationships between things. Young people have a curiosity, that, as we age, we start to put to the side, because we have too many things to do. But these are things that we can make time for. Personally, I schedule out 30-40 extra minutes to get anywhere, because I’m always looking for feathers!

What do you hope this book will achieve?

I hope that people become wrapped up in it, in a tender way, to experience that collective eco-grief that we are all moving through, following the bushfires. It’s also a celebration of the incredible creatures that exist around us, and reignite that fire in the belly, to say that we really need to do something about this, we can’t sit back and feel separate from the Earth anymore.