Lucy Norton on Listening to Flood

By Lucy Norton | 21 Jul 23
The flood waters receding in Lismore

Editor’s Introduction: We are being warned by climate experts to expect more ‘disasters’ as governments fail to mitigate climate change, but what is it like to live through these events and what can we learn from them?

Lucy Norton compassionately reflects on living through the 2022 Lismore Floods and how colonial frameworks misplace our grief in light of climate events, that instead of blaming Country we must begin listening to her to create holistic First Nations-led climate solutions.

Last February the biggest flood in post-Invasion ‘Australian’ history hit Bundjalung Country in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. At the time, I was living in Lismore on Widjabul-Wiabal land with my sister and little nephew where our house was destroyed by the floodwaters. In the year since, coverage of the floods has labelled them as ‘natural disasters’ but, from a First Nations perspective, it is more useful to understand these occurrences as natural expressions of Country.

The flood waters receding in Lismore
The flood waters receding in Lismore

Understanding colonisation

There is a well known sentiment among Indigenous peoples globally that we already live in a post-apocalyptic world. When people speak of the climate crisis as this unfolding unimaginable future, it is important to acknowledge that this is a future First Nations People on this continent are already living in – and have been for 235 years.

People in this country must clearly understand that colonisation is not a one-off event, it is a continued legacy of invasion and occupation of First Nations land and waters. We see this continued legacy of colonisation in our communities and families, across the landscape of Country and in the systems and institutions set up to ‘manage’ responses to horrific atrocities.

During the height of the floods on Bundjalung Country, most of the rescue efforts were community driven due to a lack of cohesiveness between government agencies. There was this general sense of unpreparedness for emergencies or disasters. When we were without homes, food, electricity, water – the nine days it took the government to declare a state of emergency felt like a lifetime. The slow roll out of flood grants following the event was also detrimental to those who had lost everything, it took over a month for temporary accommodation grants to be received.

The top-down settler approach, ultimately, failed those of us on the ground and it was community that pulled us through. This lesson must be applied to how we think about environmental care.

In conversations regarding the state of our planet, I can’t help but wince at well-meaning environmentalists lamenting, “what can we do”, when traditional custodianship is and always has been the answer. The most pressing issue in this climate crisis is that, whether it be here on this continent or across the seas on Turtle Island (North America), Country is continuously being desecrated by settler-colonial systems. Earth as a living, breathing being now sputters as her rivers run dry, fires unfurl across landscapes not taken care of, and floods make garbage heaps of towns that shouldn’t be where they were situated in the first place.

Houses in Lismore cleaning up
Houses in Lismore cleaning up

First Nations leadership through flood

Before living in Lismore, my sister and I grew up in the suburbs of South West Sydney, so the realities of living in flood territory meant little to us. On reflection, this is also a signifier of how disconnected from Country we can be at times, as descendants of those that were dispossessed.

Through losing my house and every material thing that I have ever loved, my grief was channelled through the usual avenues. I felt anger and rage against this force of nature that had taken so much from me in such a short amount of time. The ancestral memory of dispossession rose in my body, like the waters that engulfed my home.

The way mob show up for each other in the face of crisis is something to be commended, and is relevant because it demonstrates a willingness to be there for kin. The same way mob show up for community and for family, they show up for Country too, and this was a big theme in the post-flood efforts – beginning with the Koori Mail Flood Hub set up and run by incredible Aboriginal women.

The opening of a Healing Hub in Lismore was driven by Dr Carlie Atkinson (Bundjalung and Yiman), who is the CEO of We-Al-Li, an organisation providing culturally safe and trauma informed support. The hub became a safe space for community in Lismore, as an extension of the Koori Mail hub efforts and in true mob spirit. They had people offering services such as massage, reiki, grief counselling and yarning circles, as well as practical support with meals and supplies for kids.

My sis and I, as holistic practitioners, also offered our services in the Healing Hub. We felt a sense of purpose and responsibility to community, being able to engage in reciprocity felt healing. On one of my shifts there, they had set up a table full of toys, books, supplies and we were given some lego for my little neph Spike. After losing everything, it meant a lot for my neph to have their own toys again.

During the time I spent at the Hub learnt a lot about the land in Lismore, what flood means to this Country, and the history of the town. This information was graciously passed on post-flood by people like Uncle Gilbert Laurie (Yaegl and Widjibal), and Aunty Judy Atkinson (Jiman and Bundjalung), to help our community understand how colonialism is partly responsible for what we have deemed a ‘natural disaster’.

We learn through these oral histories that Lismore was a swampy marsh floodplain pre-colonial settlement, and colonisers were warned by Bundjalung people not to build there. Colonisers ignored this guidance and we can see directly how the disrespect of local Indigenous knowledge at the time of invasion has had disastrous effects on not just mob but everyone, and particularly the land. The Country in Lismore holds the memory of centuries of flooding and people losing their homes, businesses, belongings and lives. This energetic memory is embedded in her, not to mention the physical effect of having man-made objects pollute the rivers, waterways, and ecosystems which once flourished due to flood.

We call floods natural disasters, but these occurrences are natural expressions of Country calling to be listened to and understood. Eurocentric responses and relationships to Country have been prioritised over Indigenous ways of being, knowing, responding. Thus Country, and all people, being extensions of the land, suffer with her.

Inside Lucy’s home on Lismore after the flood
Inside Lucy’s home on Lismore after the flood

Healing from colonisation

Lismore was not the only place affected by the 2022 floods, all Bundjalung Nation and neighbouring Country felt this impact. Colonial interference such as mass land clearing, highways, weirs and dams leads to great distortion of the natural expressions of Country. Colonists from the 1840s cleared nearly 99% of the Big Scrub rainforest, which was once the largest expanse of lowland subtropical rainforest in so-called Eastern Australia, for unsustainable agriculture and development. Can you imagine how a change of this magnitude altered the entire ecosystem? We are seeing the effects of such disregard for these natural systems in the floods that occur every few years in the Northern Rivers.

There have been great strides made to preserve what is left of the Big Scrub rainforest, and it is amazing to see the efforts being made to replant native vegetation through restoration projects. However, we need to see projects like this happening on a massive scale if we want Country to be well again, and this needs to be grounded in the thoughtful, considered management of First Nations custodians who know the land.

Like all the other expressions of Country, flood has its place. Pre-colonisation, flooding sustained life through cycles and contributed to ecological balance. These events are now deemed ‘disasters’ because the legacy of invasion, dispossession, disrespect and genocide– not only of Indigenous peoples, but our more-than-human kin – has made them that way. Learning this from Elders in community has helped me understand and respect flood, helped me move through that anger and rage I felt. I realised this rage and grief was not directed at Country, it was directed at the colonial mechanisms that allow these events to occur despite being offered a better way.

‘Climate Action Now’ sign in Lismore
‘Climate Action Now’ sign in Lismore

Questions for you

When you see Country (these lands and waters) as just a resource, you are not seeing her entirely or properly. It is this complacency of subjugation toward something so integral, not only to Indigenous identities but life in general, that has led to this ‘climate crisis’.

When you demonise flood or rain or fire, you create separation between these integral symbiotic relationships we share with Country and all that she encompasses. We know that big industry polluting ecosystems makes Country sick, and that individual impact may not be able to outweigh that – but what about collective impact? There are so many First Nations, grassroots activists out there leading the fight against the individuals, groups and governments who continue to mistreat the land for short-term financial gain.

For non-Indigenous readers, I leave points of reflection for you:

When will it be enough for you to stand with First Nations People?

What will make you care enough about the land to want to fight for her, too?

What legacy do you leave behind for your ascendants?

Who are you responsible to?