Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Sunbury Rings

We’re standing beside one of the Sunbury Rings with Uncle Dave Wandin, part of the Narrap Team that manages  properties owned by the Wurundjeri Council. When I first heard about these ceremonial grounds on the outskirts of Sunbury, I imagined in my mind’s eye a broad raised mound on the creek flats, hidden away somewhere, an ancient gathering place for hundreds. The reality is different: the rings are small, inscribed into the hillside above Jacksons Creek, the weathered shape of bank cut into on one side of the slope and the earth moved to the other side to make up a circle of level ground four metres or so across.

In fact, nothing is as I imagined it. The Rings are not hidden away, but in plain view, on the side of the valley across from the railway line as it descends into Sunbury. I must have looked out towards the Rings many times on the train to Melbourne. And these are not broad mounds where hundreds gathered, warriors rattling their spears, but something more intimate, a place where the men and women convened separately to make preparations, each out of sight of the other, then met in the third ring for a marriage ceremony, this site more complex, a circle contained in a wider circle, but still nothing grand, a place to sit in groups in the firelight, with singing and dancing in the centre of the circle, a living room if you like.

The Rings are high on the hillside because the valley was once not so deeply incised when they were first made and used sometime in the last 30,000 years. The creek would have been nearby. They were a place for family groups to meet, families that followed the seasons and the food, at a time when perhaps 20,000 Wurundjeri were living in all that country where the water flows to the bay. Not so many people in such a large area; now we have five million and more as development pushes out along creeks and hillsides just like these in Sunbury.

The original shape has weathered down, but the intent remains

And Uncle Dave isn’t quite as I imagined him. He’s wearing an orange AustralBricks jumper. He doesn’t hammer us with a sermon, but talks matter-of-factly of the life of the Wurundjeri then, as he and other elders have pieced it together from the historical record and family stories and from a feeling for how to live in this kind of country. The past and the present are a continuity for him. He is Wurundjeri, and a contemporary man, acceding to the wishes of his elders not to redig the Rings to their original shape, as he would like, but to leave them weathered, protected by fences, to leave them in peace now that a little of what had been has been recovered and granted some respect. Many elders are tired after the long fight, they too want a bit of peace, he tells us.

Uncle Dave Wandin
We walk along the hillside between the Rings and Uncle Dave shows us where he demonstrated traditional burning last year to the Hume Shire and other fire people, burning separate patches of grasses, each lit with one match he says, reading the wind and temperature conditions and the lie of the land to know exactly where each burn would finish. ‘We teach our kids to swim so they are safe and happy around water – why not teach them to use fire, so they are just as comfortable and safe with fire?’

I hear a mind and imagination at work here, learning how to heal Country, building links with mainstream fire and environment people, fighting the constraints imposed by regulation and planning, even when people with money and influence have different plans. 

We’ve been slow in the Landcare movement to make allies here, out of our fear for our property and fear of the other-ness of Aboriginal people. Yet hidden in plain sight, they are people like you and me, getting on with learning how to care for Country, whatever the obstacles.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

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