Tyberius Larking on Karst as a Metaphor for Solidarity

By Tyberius Larking | 15 Nov 23

Editor’s introduction: I first stumbled across Tyberius Larking’s work as an artist before I knew him as a writer. His work has a painterly feel, soft swathes of colours with just enough stark outline to build the picture and his writing style distils this quality further. Larking’s article utilises a metaphor that may seem unclear at first but, as each sentence builds tone and texture, we get taken on a reflective journey about homeland, the political landscape of Indigenous rights and what solidarity means for him.

I just finished Tysen Yunkaporta’s iconic Sand Talk.

“Metaphors are the language of spirit,” he writes.

Sand Talk is a compendium of Aboriginal philosophies and perspectives, escorted by symbols – one could imagine engraved in the sand. Metaphor, visual, or written, or oral, is the culmination of connections. Indigenous people are experts when it comes to distilling and transferring connections from one generation to the next. Despite colonial policy, ensuring unaccountable permission to newcomers, to surgically adapt our geographies and families to their economic goals. This is why I’ll ask you first bear witness to my geography and my family, as I scrape a metaphor into your spirit.

My Homeland

My mob are Mirning, and descend from Fowlers Bay, a small detour from the Eyre highway, notably one of the longest straight roads in the world. At nearly 2000 kilometres in total, this strip traverses the infamous Nullarbor Plains, a 200,000 square kilometres of flat land, characteristically devoid of trees and rain.

This is host to the world’s biggest expanse of limestone karst. Soluble rocks like limestone and gypsum are fundamental to karst formation. Limestone is a sedimentary rock made up almost completely of calcium carbonate. It forms, first and foremost, as precipitate from solute calcium in ocean basins, calcium donated by hoards of fossils and 540 million years of weathered corals and exoskeletons. Indigenous cultures have evolved and amassed layers of sedimentary knowledge much the same.

Karst topography begins when carbonic acid, produced by the chemical reaction between carbon dioxide gas and water, hollows and texturises blocks of limestone. This erosive process, called karstification, is responsible for both superficial puckering like “pavement”, a striking pattern of gaping grooves and sinkholes, as well as deep-tissue infiltrating drainage systems and cavernous pouches.

Indigenous groups, globally, are unified by our histories of the corrosion by capitalism and settler-colonialism, and by the continued disruption of our traditional lands and practices. It was a paragraph about culture, in the concluding chapters of Sand Talk that really struck a chord with me.

“There is a phrase that approximates the concept (culture)…the meaning comes out as ‘being like our place’.”

Place and Politics

Let me take you back to the first time the true scale of my “place” was revealed to me.

I was out for a long winding waddle through the forest with my family. A luminous stream of kangaroos petered out like a meteor, down a fern engulfed passage. In every direction, the track cloned itself. We were in a house of mirrors. Stripes of blissful light poked through gaps in the canopy ceiling above us, chiselled and cone shaped, like holograms of stalactites. They pointed from above, these fingers revisiting a nostalgic, soul-fattening scripture. Pointed to the few blazing orchids, neon, like banknotes. The valley was fraught with cavities, at times the ground dropped clean off and I found myself submerged.
“I don’t reckon you’d have the patience for that journey”, my Mum chuckles.

Crouched beside me, teasing apart the petite, and vulnerable roots of a mallee, she continues in a more compassionate tone, “when we drove across the Nullarbor, I was only interested in my cassette tapes and my teenage grief.”

“Hard to believe all those caves are down there. It’s like a secret has been kept from me”, I whisper. My eyes assessing the yellow grey mass of cockatoos gathering together, welding us, flora and fauna into one, like cement.

Neither place nor culture can be isolated from politics. No single bubble of the Nullarbor’s subterranean labyrinth can be isolated from the karst system. Ecological entropy affects all of our traditional landscapes and so our “place”is the perfect source of imagery and of metaphor.

Tyson speaks of metaphor as a means of “knowledge transmission”. Metaphor continually weathers and adds complexity to our lives and politics like the sun, over geological timescales, warps the coastal scarp between my country and the sea. A dash of meaning makes all the difference when it comes to memory. Metaphor can preserve our environmental politics as it has preserved our lore and our lyrics.

Countless colonial expeditions of my homelands were attempted and ultimately thwarted by dehydration. Henry Kingsley described this topographical wonder as a “hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams”. Colonial arrogance is a much darker blot, a blot on the lives of all my loved ones.

It wasn’t until I left high school, that I contemplated my role in the growing climate justice movement. A major misconception I held was my perception of the political landscape as an inhospitable wasteland and political action as a solitary, linear odyssey. My first taste of resistance was the School Strike movement but, in its infancy, and arguably still, the movement suffered from a lack of Aboriginal representation. To be funnelled into reductive debates about individual carbon footprints, was paralysing. My teenage years were defined by emptiness but somehow, also defined openness and desperation.

Let’s get to work: allyship and political action

I was an idle truck on the Eyre highway, a billowing cloud of exhaust fumes, with little patience for parliamentary procrastination. Little did I know, beneath the surface of this political desert, a diverse ecosystem of Indigenous liberation movements were hard at work, exchanging and comparing notes.

This is Solidarity made in the image of karst.

In colonial Australia, the Indigenous fight for land rights, and access to clean, renewable energy exists in relation to all concurrent struggles.

To the left of current affairs, there are avalanches. To the right, flash-fires in wooden biomes, cherry sunsets patterned with helicopters. Contending with and relating the prognosis of Indigenous Australia to Indigenous territories on an international scale, I cannot overstate the need for long-term restoration and reparations. Solidarity isn’t here for a decade, but here to stay. Change is doubly destabilising when we’re divided.

In the Nullarbor’s powdery basements and sinuses, resident invertebrates and species visiting for the first time, all find strength in numbers. Indigenous issues are system issues and taking on the system requires united and optimistic action. As I continue to align Indigenous sovereignty with my eco-politics, there are three principles I find helpful,

  • First Nations are equally related by our values, which predate the onset of erosion
  • Indigenous affinity for biodiversity and reverential conservation of “place” are manifestations of solidarity with the natural world
  • Solidarity is not just practical, it’s happy and gratifying. Solidarity must not be exclusive to First Nations, but extended to everyone living within capitalism.

The “language of spirit”, Indigenous metaphor, simultaneously nourishes connection and collective action. As we act, incrementally, a rock solid foundation will be laid. A bed that can’t be dissolved by setbacks.

Indigenous solidarity is a language we must keep speaking loudly if we want climate justice.

We must stay conscious of the true scale of our place on this planet.