Messengers of the natural world

Issue 

Messengers of the Gods: Tribal Elders Reveal the Ancient Wisdom of the Earth
By James Cowan
Vintage Australia. 209 pp., $17
Reviewed by Dave Riley

If you have fished Port Phillip Bay this message is clear: When the tea-trees are blooming, the snapper are biting. That this fish is carnivorous, is bound by destiny to the sea and has no direct relationship to this family of coastal shrubs is irrelevant to your fishing prospects. The immense interconnectedness of nature is its own messenger.

The relation between the snapper, tea-tree and Victorian fisher folk is merely a hint of a magnificent blending of all the phenomena in the natural and social world. While we are part of a much greater whole, our precise relevance to the overall has historically been open to a multitude of interpretations.

In the wake of the current greening comes a new literature bent on dismantling our most popular perceptions of the natural world. Critical of modern science's warped vision, many writers are fostering instead an intrinsic naturalism inherent in the environmental wisdom of the world's indigenous peoples. James Cowan is one such writer.

"Nature", he writes, "lives its own metaphor and reveals its intent by way of a totality of perceptions better known to us as intuition. We are able to feel nature's intentions when we are in tune with the evolution of its forms." The tribal people interviewed in Messengers of the Gods think as nature does because they regard themselves as nature's heralds on behalf of other creatures.

This is a really appealing concept. If only we could think as they think, then we could do as they do. However, nature speaks to them in myths generated in the stillness of their surroundings so that there exist two worlds — the material and the metaphysical — so intertwined that one could participate in both.

I don't doubt that Cowan has comprehended an essential aspect of the living cultures of indigenous peoples. The myths recounted by the tribal elders from the three communities visited by Cowan in Western Australia, Torres Strait and Borneo are a canon of belief that transcribes poorly to today.

While we may be keen to invest nature with a new spirituality so that we can reclaim some of the wonder of the past, projecting a new metaphysics onto nature merely hampers our ability to understand it. Our desire to respect, honour and obey the natural world should not be used as an excuse for a new age of passivity as we seek to forget ourselves among the greenery.