Review of “Aboriginal Environmental Knowledge” by Catherine Laudine

Making space to review books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge has been harder this year than last. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m busier or if I’m holding myself to a higher standard of reviewing, and therefore, am a bit daunted.

Aboriginal Environmental Knowledge. Rational Reverence by Catherine Laudine is one of the books that daunts me. The title sounded really promising. How people create and inhabit their world fascinates me. As a storyteller, it’s something I’m doing constantly: finding and communicating meaning.

I also read a fantastic book earlier this year on a related topic. Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia considers land management in 1788. There is a good review of it in The Global Mail if you’re interested. For me, I was astonished to realise the extent to which I lazily accepted the terra nullius argument, when I’d have sworn I didn’t. The Biggest Estate re-populated Australia for me. I began to see places that I had lived in and loved were landscapes created over thousands of years by other people living and loving there.

However, I’m very aware that in gaining this sense of historical connection, I run a very real risk of cultural appropriation. This is a theme that Catherine Laudine deals with in Aboriginal Environmental Knowledge, although I’ve not heard anyone else label it as a search for wholeness (p.121) where the non-Aboriginal person tries to obtain from their construction of Aboriginality what they feel is lacking in their own cultural background. I don’t think I want to appropriate someone else’s identity, but I do want to understand their experience and part of understanding is weaving that thread into my own life story.

Aboriginal Environmental Knowledge is a more scholarly text than I anticipated. Laudine spends a fair bit of time critiquing other work in the field. As I’m not an expert, this was sometimes annoying — but that was my impatience. I was looking for a story, not a carefully argued case. Most times, the examples Laudine brought up in the discussion were interesting.

The book was well-researched, clearly presented and respectful. There is a distance to it, though. The impression I had was of Laudine looking in at a world that she longed to believe she had privileged access to (in the sense of being welcomed by the people whose world it is), but which was actually, in important ways, beyond the reach of description. How do you shed your own cultural mindset to understand another’s?