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Victor Steffensen listens to the land
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Victor Steffensen listens to the land
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Victor Steffensen listens to the land
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“You can have fire trucks and boots and all the things in the world that protect you from fire, but nothing can protect you more than knowledge.”
Conversations
20 August 2018

Victor Steffensen listens to the land

Interview by Nathan Scolaro
Photography by Ben Lister

Nathan Scolaro on Victor Steffensen

Victor Steffensen knows the land that he spent his formative years on like it’s a family member. He can tell when it’s sick, what it needs in order to heal, how healthy the relationships are between the species that occupy it. And he knows the stories that his ancestors have imbued in it for thousands of years. As a teenager struggling with a Western education system, Victor set out to get to know the land and relationships of his grandmother’s family: the Tagalaka people of Northern Queensland. On a chance fishing trip, he came to befriend two elder brothers who would teach him everything they knew about the land and how to look after it.

That knowledge had a huge impact on Victor—he saw how valuable it was for living a connected life. But he was somewhat of an anomaly among his generation. He realised that he needed to record the wisdom of the elders before it was lost, so he started filming them on country talking about the different plant and animal life, and storing it in digital archives. The project, now known as Mulong, has been mirrored in indigenous communities across the world.

Today, Victor travels around Australia teaching indigenous and non-indigenous people to listen to the land the way he was taught—focusing on fire management for regenerating country. With destructive wildfires becoming increasingly common around Australia and the world, Victor says traditional fire practice will bring balance to our ecosystems and better prepare the land and communities for climate change. I’m reminded that we need to get proximate to the land and pay attention to it to give it its best chance at survival. We need to be learning about our environment “in its classroom,” as Victor says, immersing ourselves in the brilliant network of life in order to see our place and responsibility in it more clearly.

This story originally ran in issue #56 of Dumbo Feather

NATHAN SCOLARO : So whereabouts are you— are you in Cairns proper? Or out of town?

VICTOR STEFFENSEN: Oh I’m just on the outskirts. Up in the valley at the moment. But I’m living close to Cairns because I’ve got to be close to an airport. I have to fly out quite often for the workshops. That’s the only reason why we’re here. If I had my way I’d be back in the sticks living away from people. My preference is living in the bush.

Say more about that.

Well I grew up loving the bush, and I always will be a part of the landscape and country. Once the demand for the work I’m doing has quieted down, I’m looking forward to getting into the country more and in that peace of just living with landscape. That’s the dream. It always was my dream.

[Laughs]. You got pulled in a few different directions!

Well when I left school and I ended up with the old people out on country, I thought that was my life forever. I was going to stay in the bush ’cause I was really happy. There was no bills, nothing to worry about.

This story originally ran in issue #56 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #56 of Dumbo Feather

There was always food on the table and great people around. Always something to do in terms of getting out on country and getting involved in culture.

But when we started to do the fire work, people around Australia were keen for it and so it took me out of the bush and living close to the city. But I’ve sort of got the best of all worlds at the moment.

So where is home? Where did you grow up?

My mother’s people are Tagalaka people from the Gulf town of Croydon. I didn’t grow up on my mother’s traditional country, I grew up in a town called Kuranda. It’s a little rainforest town and it was mainly populated with Aboriginal people and hippies. It was wonderful growing up there because it was really free and I went to school with no shoes and we spent most of our days on the Barron River. All the time it was just camping and fishing and eating fish off the coals and swimming.

It sounds idyllic.

I was pretty lucky, you know. When I look at other children today, they’re not growing up that way. And I guess that’s why I decided to do the work I’m doing. Because we need to get this out to the young people and the young people need to be inspired to reconnect to the landscape again.

So tell us a bit about your organisation, Mulong, and the work you’re doing.

Mulong is the company name, and my first work wasn’t fire work. My first work was traditional knowledge recording in general. Recording all the plants and animals, all the knowledge of country from the old people. I created a project called Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways and that got the attention of communities all over. So I developed a database—I didn’t know anything about computers but someone showed me. And I started to design a database and share that with communities around Australia to record their own knowledge. And I shared the whole methodology I’d created around using video cameras to record on country and record the traditional practices. I found the video camera was the closest thing to the traditional transfer of knowledge. Where you can see the person and the place, you can see the demonstration, the people themselves are speaking.

I want to take you back, ’cause this is pretty amazing that you went and set out on this journey. When was the point for you that you realised you wanted to record the knowledge? What was happening for you?

Well to go right back, my mother’s people were on a massive gold mine in 1920. In Croydon, north Queensland. And all my grandmother’s family were separated and sent to different missions and different places. They were taken off country. It was hit pretty hard. When I asked my mother and a lot of my relatives questions about the land, they couldn’t answer much. And so I ended up searching. When I left school I ended up searching for more. I went to neighbouring clan groups and I ended up in the lower Cape York region, which isn’t far from the gulf. It’s all one country anyway. Gulf and Cape York is more Western ways of separating the landscape. So I went to a neighbouring clan group and ended up with two very special old men from the Awu Laya clan. Their names were George Musgrave and Tommy George. They were two brothers that weren’t taken off country at the time. And they were kept there because of the local cattle station owner. Name was Frederick Shepherd. And that man hid those boys when they were just kids. He hid them in mail bags every time the cops came around, you know, on horseback. The police would come around searching for children and capturing children, ’cause that was their mission, to take the kids away. But the old man Fred Shepherd, he hid those boys from the cops which allowed them to stay on country and live with the old people. In them days they’re still walking around naked on country, the elders. Almost still in their traditional form. I ended up with those old men when I went searching and they were so knowledgeable.

They took me under their wing and I got accepted into their clan group as well as having my own. That’s very common that you can get adopted into other clan groups. And that’s where I did all my learning.

How did you come to meet them?

Oh just one day I was going fishing. When I left school I didn’t pass any subjects. And my liaison officer, he asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be a ranger and I wanted to look after country. He said, “Oh you should go to university and we’ll apply for you to get in through special entry.” So they put me through to university in Canberra. I was 17. And I didn’t last very long ’cause it wasn’t teaching me what I wanted to learn. They were teaching me English and how to use computers and at the time I just thought that was irrelevant for me. So I came home and went bush with some friends to go fishing. That’s where I met the old people. And on that fishing trip, I never did go back home. Ten years later I was still there. Fifteen years later I was still there.

Wow. So that was your university studies?

That was my university, yeah. They’re family, and all their family is my family. And we still have strong connections and always will. We have a workshop heading up there in a couple of weeks to burn out on the country again. So it’s all continuing on. But since then we lost those old people, all the elders. Now it’s just me and the younger ones. But when we first started to do the work, learning all the medicines, all the plants and animals and stories of the landscape, I was looking at the young people around me and they weren’t picking it up. And not just in that little community but all over. A lot of young people weren’t picking that knowledge up and the old people were continuously voicing their frustrations because their main goal was to get the young people involved. So for me coming from a background of culture being taken away from my grandmother’s people, I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to say, “Well how do we bring back knowledge and how do we make people connect back to country? How do we enrich culture again?” ’Cause there’s so much value in that. And when I was learning all that knowledge I started to see all the problems in the world. All the problems with the environment and how we can fix it from an indigenous knowledge perspective. So I said to the old people, I said, “Look, maybe we should record the knowledge. And that way it won’t get lost. That way we can get it down and show the people of the future, show them you fellas talking and singing your country.” And they were keen on that. And I didn’t know how I was going to do that but one day a video camera just turned up. Just a handicam, you know. Those things with the flip, hold with one hand and there’s no mic jacks or nothing. So I picked that up and started to film. I had a good idea of filming and performance because when I was younger I was really into theatre. I was always in a lot of school plays. Before I went bush my biggest dream was to become an actor.

Yeah right!

So then I learned to play the guitar and write stuff and think of story lines. That all fell to the wayside and then I just went bush to learn about Aboriginal knowledge.

Then this camera comes to you and sparks something.

All of a sudden the love for theatre was coming back. I was holding the camera and working with the old people making films. First they weren’t too sure about the camera, you know.

It’s pretty confronting.

But not only that, they didn’t know what it was. Back then there were no mobile phones even. They didn’t know what the camera was going to produce. All they knew was that a camera takes photos. So when I first pointed a camera at the old people they were standing still and quiet like they’re getting their photo taken! [Laughs]. And so I started to show them and play back the video and then it wasn’t long, we had an amazing little team on country recording this knowledge.

Amazing.

And we weren’t doing it for no one else except for ourselves. We had no wages. I was on a Work for the Dole scheme. Old people were just getting their pension.

Did you love it? Were you happy?

They were among the best days of my life so far. Such happy days.

What kind of knowledge were you collecting?

The first thing we started to do was trees, all the foods and the medicines. So we’d stand up and look at the tree and an old fella would start talking about the name and language. And then they’d start talking about the medicine use. Then the craft use, the food use. And then the spiritual uses. And the relationships with that tree, the leaf, the bark, the timber, the roots.

Some trees would have two or three uses, some would have 10 uses or more. There was so much knowledge just in one tree.

Also with the place, what grows with those trees and how they all become different clan groups and different places and have different values. Then we’d find an animal and film an animal. Sometimes we’d actually get the animal too and cook it [laughs]. Say it was a goanna, kill the goanna and cook him up. And we’ll film the whole process.

You must have learned so much about how to live and living well.

Oh it was so healthy. I was so fit. And the old people were so fit. They lived to be very old men. Always active. Always sharp in the mind. None of this Alzheimer’s, none of these problems that people get when they’re old today. They had vision, they could see a tiny bird from miles away in the bush. And the thing that kept them going was that culture. Always walking, always moving and always being reminded through the landscape about stories and knowledge. It’s always poking out at you. When people see the landscape they just see trees. When the old people see the landscape they see thousands of years of knowledge and stories. And that continues to go through your head. Keeps you fired up. And then the seasons will say, “Oh, it’s time to get fishing! Oh, there’s food on this tree now! Oh, it’s a good time to cut the bark and do some craft work.” The land’s seasons would continue to tell us what was next.

It’s so clear that that’s where we need to be. The rest of the world! We need to listen to the land like that. We have to form those connections again with other species, other plant life, to the seasons, in order for us to save ourselves.

We need to reconnect. And that’s what I saw. First I just thought I needed to give this to the younger generations. But that sort of blew out to be the whole community, black and white.

Everyone.

Everyone.

I imagine young people are easier to teach. Is it harder to change behaviours and mindsets with older people?

Oh well you see the thing with the old people was that they couldn’t get the young people on board because there’s so many challenges. Talking about indigenous people in general. As soon as Facebook and the phones came out, that was it. We lost them. Alcohol is another big factor. All of these things just made it almost impossible for the old people to get the attention of the younger ones. ’Cause they were off with all the addictions. Fast foods, the shops, the motor cars, the things that take you away from culture and point you in a direction of having a good time [laughs].

Yeah, the quick fixes.

Yeah, and hip hop and chasing other cultures and other identities. And not really seeing the value in their own identity and country.

So what’s been your approach? To get them to engage?

Well for me that’s why the video camera was important. But even then with filming the old people, the young people still weren’t engaging properly. That’s when I turned things around and said, “Okay, let’s film the young people. And let’s put them on the camera. Let’s put the old people behind the camera and make them directors.” The young people suddenly had a role to play. They were the ones speaking in front of the camera. The ones being listened to. And everyone was giving them the credit. So that encouraged them to want to learn more. And things changed and over time.

Once they started to pick that knowledge up and understand the landscapes, they realised that they were learning something. You could see them change in front of your eyes.

That’s what I’m seeing today all over the country. There’s a massive shift in young people, white and black. And they’re keen to learn all the indigenous fire practices.

So while you’re doing this traditional knowledge recording and accumulating, the fire work emerges from that?

Well firstly with that traditional knowledge work, we started going to New Zealand and North America and showing them the database. Because other communities wanted to learn how to record knowledge too. So we started to help out them fellas. But when I went over and did that, I looked at the database in a different way and thought, This is all wrong. Because knowledge is no good if it’s stored in a computer. We need to implant it into the people again. I realised it was the Western way of archiving. Which is not the true form of passing on knowledge.

It’s not embodied.

That’s right. And it’s not demonstrated and it’s not practised if it’s sitting on a shelf. And it’s also not accessible. So after all those years of putting the database together, I just went, This is not the right way. Now it’s time to implant this into the living. So that people have this knowledge inside them and we’re creating those walking libraries once again. So I threw away the database and decided to just work on country and teach directly the way I learned. Fire was a big part of that because every time we got out on country, the old people would complain. They’d say, “Oh, we’re looking for this plant. We’re looking for this site. And we can’t find it because it’s not there anymore. The plants are gone because the country’s sick. The grass is long, there’s rubbish everywhere. It’s so dry and unbalanced.” The country in many places had become really unhealthy.

When are we talking here?

Late ’95. They were saying the country is sick and we need to open more doors of knowledge within the landscape. Whether it be the water, the trees, the plants, the animals, the sky, everything. There were many doors closed. So to look after the country they said we need to burn it. And we couldn’t burn it because those old people grew up in a “yes boss, no boss” time when they weren’t allowed to do anything. The bosses for them were the police, the national parks, the pastoralists. And they wouldn’t do anything without the permission of those agencies. Those parties didn’t want to see Aboriginal involvement then. No way they wanted to see Aboriginal burning happening. So the old people got frustrated because of the boss man factor. And here I was, young fella, early 20s, and I was just like, “I’m not going to have that” [laughs]. How is it possible that we have two old men with thousands of years of knowledge, they know the country, they come from the country, but they’re not allowed to do anything because of some national park officer that doesn’t know anything about the landscape? And that’s the way this country’s been for many, many years. We’ve had this wealth of knowledge suppressed. Just like the land is now suppressed as well, the people and their knowledge were suppressed. So everything starts to go cloudy and die. And the old people didn’t have any way of making that better. ’Cause they weren’t educated in a modern way to start meetings and ask for permissions. So that’s where my role came in, but still the agencies said no to us burning, pretty much didn’t want us to do anything. So we never did get the permission to light the country. But I managed to get the old people to do it. So our first fire was an illegal fire.

Hah! Whoa. How was that?

I was shocked when the old people agreed to light the country. I slammed the brakes on in the car when they told me as we drove through the country. I remember watching them jumping out of the car and lighting that fire [laughs]. We got in big trouble. But that fire did everything the old fella said. It went out where it was supposed to go out. It was a really cool and beautiful burn. But national parks and pastoralists, they hated us.

But did they come to see the benefit in time?

I heard on the grapevine that the place where we burnt was a really good muster for the pastoralists. And it was beneficial for them. But they didn’t tell us. It was just a tough time back then. And it was the first time Aboriginal people stood up for themselves and were doing something. Getting our cultural practice back on country. That was a big step. Getting that first burn going.

Can you tell us a bit more about the indigenous fire practices and what’s involved with that?

Well the first thing is that knowledge is safety. And the safest thing you can ever have on country when it comes to fire is knowledge. You can have fire trucks and boots and all the things in the world that protect you from fire, but nothing can protect you more than knowledge. And that means knowing the land and knowing all the trees and all the different ecosystems. Each system becomes ready for fire, one by one. The country’s just not all ready to go at once. So certain times of the year we burn certain places, and only those places. We only burn certain ecosystems and the next system puts the fire out ’cause it’s still green. And it comes from thousands of years of knowledge, understanding how everything fits in and how all the animals fit in with the fire.

Have you noticed a change in people coming to you for this kind of knowledge about the land?

Yeah there is a shift. Especially from the days when we first started, getting threats and the attitudes and the difficulty of just trying to do something right for the landscape, there has been a gradual shift. And it’s been nearly 27 years now. When I started out it was just me and the two old men, and then we started involving some local indigenous communities nearby coming to listen to us. Now we’ve got real fire brigades, national parks, we’ve got all walks of life coming. Pastoralists, local land holders. Aboriginal people. All coming to these workshops around Australia. Greenies. All these different perspectives and opinions. And they all come to the workshop and they listen to the land for the first time.

How does that make you feel personally? You know. Being on the front line of this. Sharing this incredible source with others.

I just found it was a responsibility and something I have to do. It’s sort of something I’ve been chosen to do, it’s just the way it is. It’s not something that I wanted to do [laughs]. I wanted to make films, be on stage. But it’s important to follow this for as long as it needs. Because otherwise, you know, this country’s in big trouble. People and community and environment.

What are you teaching people when you’re teaching them to listen to the land? What does that involve?

Well, the first thing I do is I show people how to read the country. So whenever I do a workshop we only do it on country. The days of PowerPoint presentation sitting in offices is over, right? You can’t learn that way.

You have to learn on country. You have to be in its classroom.

Otherwise you just have continuous opinions and people going round and round in circles. So when you get them out on country you can only learn about one place. You can’t learn about all different places. And we start to show the indicators and the language of the land, how it tells us what’s really going on. Often people think it’s just a healthy landscape. They see trees and vegetation. But they soon learn that it’s very unhealthy. When you show them what should be growing around that particular tree species, and why there’s no food on the landscape. Then we look at how that links to the way people have been behaving. And how they’ve been using the land. And how that links to how the land reflects them. That community.

Yeah that’s really interesting. It’s like a mirror for us.

Yeah that’s right. It’s a mirror. So when a community stands there, looks at a landscape that’s full of lantana and weeds and has been continuously burnt with hot fires and the trees are sick and it’s all in a mess, that represents them. When I say, “This represents you not talking to each other, youse all not working together. Youse all arguing and not sharing.” They see it. It’s so powerful and they just don’t know what to say. Then I get maybe a third generation farmer. Eighty years of age. Walks up to me within only a couple of hours of talking about country and saying he’s been doing it wrong all his life. And he really wants to learn this because he wants to leave the country in a better shape than what it was when he got it from his father. And so there’s this amazing shift and the thing that brings that is the landscape. You look at the history of this country prior from settlement to now, it’s always been people versus people. And people arguing with each other and talking about their rights. But the land was always left out. And the land was never involved. So

what we’re simply doing is showing people the land is the boss and the land’s the one that leads us.

And when we put the land in front, it sorts out everyone [laughs]. Often in the beginning of the workshops the people come in and they’re looking down and they’ve got their arms crossed. They’re looking at me in a way like, “Who the hell’s this guy?” and by the end of the workshop their eyes are wide open, all aflame. And they’re all talking and you can just feel this energy. Everyone’s just together. And it’s a transformation. It’s a magical sort of thing. That only shows how powerful the landscape is.

Amazing. I want to know a bit more about the role of fire in nature. Because I think we have this relationship with fire in Western culture where it’s something we have to conquer, it’s bad, it’s destructive, but there’s obviously a much healthier way of understanding it, that it’s really important for our ecosystem like you say.

Well yeah, so our modern understanding of fire is being developed from separating themselves from the landscape. So it’s all industrialised, it’s all around fear. And what created that fear is not looking after the land. What created that fear is destroying that knowledge system that Aboriginal people knew about the country. So the knowledge gaps started right from when the first settlers hit these shores. When they start taking people off the landscape. That was their first mistake because people are part of the land. We are all part of this earth. And so when they disconnected that, everything went no good. Now we get these wild fires. The country is getting more wild fires now because no one’s looking after it. So now it’s all about fighting fire, it’s all about saving the houses, saving the people from the fire. So it becomes a fear. And at the end of all that there’s this heroism. Like we’ve got royal fire brigades and fire fighters now who are heroes of something that shouldn’t be happening. So we have this cycle. It has also grown into an industry. Making so much money out of destroying the country. And it’s really weird because they’re inventing the next new fire suit, the next best guttering system, fireproof houses, bunkers in your backyard. There’s so much money tied to the destruction of the landscape that some of them aren’t really interested in looking after it ’cause they’re making so much money out of the destruction. So it’s a really weird culture where we’re at now in terms of fire, fear and the industry. Don’t understand it. ’Cause the fire we know protects the trees’ canopy, puts the right fire for the soil type at the timing of the year. The fire that favours the native vegetation and allows it to shoot up and bring back life. It transforms a country of dead grass into green grass. And that way keeps food on the landscape and to keep it really healthy and productive. But that’s rapidly declining because of not looking after the land.

I read somewhere you said that diversity is starting to change because we’re all starting to turn into one country. And I feel like this is one of our biggest problems. Both socially and environmentally. Is that we’re losing our diversity.

That’s right. It’s like, follow your body. You’ve got the lung, the liver, the heart, your kidneys. All these different organs. And it’s the same with your motor car. You’ve got your radiator and oil pump and fuel pump and so on. The same as a country, you’ve got all these different systems that play different roles that create that one massive life system. But if everything was rainforest then we wouldn’t have certain animals that live in the dry country. If everything was dry, we wouldn’t have rainforest animals. When the first settlers came here all the systems this country needed were here, the animals, the plants. They’d even documented it all to prove it [laughs]. And now Australia is losing one species every seven years. And the only reason that is happening is because they don’t know the country. And that makes it become another kind of country. For example lantana, weeds that goes right through the country. When they burn now they burn all the ecosystems at once because it’s all full of rubbish and dry. And so it all becomes one country. And we lose the diversity because they don’t burn the different ecosystems at the right times. Just last week I was going to northern New South Wales and we were only burning gum tree country. And everyone was puzzled when we lit this one area and it went out everywhere else. Only the gum tree country burnt. With no fire breaks, no water, nothing. And they couldn’t believe it. But that made total sense ’cause the land was telling us now. Problem is, we’re not led by the landscape anymore. We’re led by ego.

The whole world’s problems come from the ego and not our true being.

So are you hopeful then for humanity and the shift we’ve been talking about, this direction that we’re moving towards, of people having a better conversation with the land?

Well a lot more hopeful than 10 years ago [laughs]. ’Cause the old people always said to me, “When the knowledge dies the land will die too.” But kids now, they don’t want to see that happen. We’re starting to ask, “How do we get that reversed? How do we put people back into the landscape and get the land healthy again? How do I get people coming along? How do I teach this?” All those questions were constantly on my mind and have been really major driving forces, you know. And we’re all doing it together. The community approach is making it so successful.

But you’re obviously an incredible holder for these shifts to happen.

I always count myself lucky. I just can’t believe it sometimes, to have met those two old people when I was young. I’m pretty speechless when it comes to how lucky I feel. I don’t know if “lucky” is even the right word. Where I’ve got something so important that I’m responsible for. And it’s such a fine line when you’re doing this sort of work because there’s a lot of false fears, national parks thinking, Oh blackfellas are going to take over if we let them do this! That was challenging in the beginning. The fact that Aboriginal people aren’t involved in any decision making within the government made it really hard. And so the way that I find doing that, and the only way to do that, is through the power of people and community. That’s why I’m getting the young people to talk on camera. Like all the films that I do and all the fire films, there’s over a hundred of them on Vimeo. The whole purpose of that is to push the people in front. And to have a thousand people advocate for this and not one person. Because everything moves together in natural lore. And not one person in front of the other, you know.

This article is part of our wilding campaign at Dumbo Feather. For more stories, inspiration and ideas for re-connecting with the wild and protecting what you love, purchase Issue 56—”Embracing the Wild” or subscribe.

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan enjoys getting elbow-deep in sentences, pressing and pricking them like a Chinese doctor until the blood is flowing just right. He hails from Western Australia, where he first experienced the joy of putting together a magazine, and now indulges his love of thoughtful, life-giving storytelling by bringing Dumbo Feather to life once a quarter.

Photography by Ben Lister

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