On Country with Park Ranger Tyson Powell

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Proud Wiradjuri and Ngunnawal man Tyson Powell takes us On Country to voice the significance of how the land connects First Nation’s People to their personhood, sense of belonging and identity.

It’s 3pm on Ngunnawal Country and the summer sun is beating down as Park Ranger Tyson Powell explains how his people were forcibly removed from these lands and put on missions in Cowra, Yass and Tumut from the 1900’s onwards—all while manoeuvring his ute up a steep dirt road.

“They wanted the ACT to be a nice, white capital,” reflects Tyson.

The road takes us through a landscape typical of rural Canberra. You can feel the heat as the midday sun lights up the burnt mandarin views below. But it’s only as Tyson begins to explain the cracks that live within this damaged landscape that they suddenly appear—and the summer air becomes thick with a difficult and uncomfortable reality.

“This country is upside down,” he says, pointing out the weeds, damaging blackberry bushes, and tea trees that paint the landscape, ready to explode at the tiniest flame. In the distance, the steady flow of the Murrumbidgee echoes the history of the family groups that once used it as their link between the mountains, their home and their meeting places.

“Right now, this part of the country is horrible. A couple of 100 years ago, there would have been camping places everywhere, big huts, good fish. That’s all gone. A lot of the country, especially in the Namadgi, is impossible to get to—but it never used to be like that. There were these big old trees with open grass and woodland where you could hunt and move through the landscape. But with the lack of fire, you get all this growth.”

This need for fire on country is something Tyson is fierily passionate about—an ancient cultural practice First Nations people refer to as ‘Cool Burning.’ Unlike backburning, this approach to grassland management arms native animals to flee before leaving its warm imprints on the land.

“Cool burning is what we do and it’s what’s been done forever,” says Tyson. “What happens is the native grass gets really thick and then you get all of this dead grass. And once it gets too thick it stops growing, and then you get all these non-native grasses come through because they like that thick grass. So, when you cool burn you are clearing all of that back and then you can start putting nutrients back in the soil and you get this new green growth after a month’s time.”

“We like to say that the fire chooses what stays and what doesn’t. And you get this landscape that’s more spaced out so that plants can flower and grow, and seeds are not just sitting there competing with each other.”

As we make our way deeper into the steep and rocky landscape, it becomes clear that Tyson is faced with a similar uphill battle when it comes to implementing cool burning on his country, lamenting the limitation of these ancient cultural practises, and with it, First Nations peoples’ sense of belonging.

The ute begins its way home, turning our backs to a view that just 10 minutes prior I deemed beautiful, now filled with retrospective details of loss and melancholy. The track takes us down the hilly descent and Tyson reflects on ‘healing’ the damaged landscape behind us.

Healing is a big word that by no means indicates a small journey but it’s one that has already begun in Canberra, with this passionate park ranger at its helm.

“I’m trying to connect the community and have Aboriginal Rangers out here so that First Nations peoples can talk to them and feel comfortable coming out here,” he says.

“It’s important that [First Nations People] have the opportunity to fulfil our cultural responsibilities, which we’ve done for thousands of years that have now been stopped. So, we need to get back to it…it’s our responsibility to heal it.”

However, even as the weeds begin to clear and willows are replaced by natives, the open wounds that remain on Tyson’s country serve as a reminder of the immense progress that needs to be made. An ‘upside-down landscape’ sized scar that will never entirely heal.

“For the average Australian you can just be Australian—our history is not a part of your life. But for us, we can’t just be Australian, because we’re the ones carrying all the baggage of this country. We’re the ones still living with all the trauma, trying to get our communities back together and everything else. We’re the ones with the weight of Australia on our shoulders.”

“We all like to say our acknowledgement of country nowadays but I think we should be doing that in our minds all the time. Just understanding that there’s so much history before you as you stand here today.”

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