It’s very big sky country

Posted 13 Jan


Words by Ali Gumillya Baker

The following words are taken from an interview with Ali conducted by MOD. in 2021, discussing her personal connection with Mirning Country as a Mirning woman.


My name is Ali Gumillya Baker, and I’m an artist and an academic. I was born and raised on Kaurna Yarta.  My family are from the west coast of South Australia, from the Nullarbor.  We’re Mirning people. And I grew up around my Nana, and all my Auntie’s and my mom, so all of the matriarchal line, Mirning women. My Nana was born in a place called Fowlers Bay, which is east of Yalata. But my great grandmother, her mother was born at a place called Eucla on the Nullarbor and my Nana’s younger sister was born outside of Fowlers Bay as well but spent a lot of her life living on the Nullarbor at a place called Mundrabilla. My Nan used to tell us stories about the Country over there. And I guess, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that place.  But I haven’t been over there as much as I want.  

It’s very big sky country. And I think about the kind of the land and the vastness of the desert. It’s a beautiful place on the planet.

When my Nan was born, it was almost closer because they had little ships that went along the coast, little skips that went to the jetties. Nan was born in 1911. She moved to Port Adelaide just before my mom was born,  my mom is one of six children.  

Fowlers Bay has massive sand dunes. And it’s currently kind of being almost like the country’s reclaiming the town.  The sand dunes are covering a lot of the places where my Nan grew up.  She was fostered into a white family when she was six. And so all of her siblings ended up going and living with that family, and they would see their Mum but not as often.  So they learned how to be servants. But the hotel where she went and worked when she was 15 is completely covered. And half the town is kind of getting covered by Sand dunes and so it feels like it’s just there’s this drift of sand.  But at the time when Nan was born, it was also like a major port, it was a pretty violent place.  

Certainly when I think about it now I think about the underground caves. The whales that come to give birth at the head of the bight, and the relationship of that country to the sky. It’s almost more sky than Earth, because it’s so flat. And at night, it stars just feel like it’s completely immersive. My Nana’s youngest sister used to always find meteorites, tektites. There’s one at the South Australian Museum in the entry foyer, a really, really large meteorite, that’s been removed from when my Nana used to live at Mundrabilla , and that would have made a big crater when it fell to the earth, it would have it would have been a really significant thing. And I guess what’s really, in a way disturbing about the way that that item is, being catalogued and recorded in the museum is that it’s a meteorite, it doesn’t say anything about its cultural connection to Mirning. So it would have had a really significant relationship to people would have known about it, it would have created something in the land, but also our relationship with outer space and with the stars. And I guess the kind of relationship with the whales and the underground caves for me, they’re all connected.  It feels like a place in the desert where there’s different possibilities, like the location of it makes other things seem much more possible. It’s hard to really describe, but there’s a different kind of vulnerability of life.  

You can feel the edge of a sense of your consciousness is different. I can’t quite describe it. The Nullabor is also one of the longest continuous sea facing cliff faces in the world. So the great Australian Bight, those Bunda Cliffs are really incredibly beautiful to stand on the edge of, but also, I guess, when you were talking to me about the relationship of that place to that frozen place, Antarctica, you can really he can understand that. So there’s this like, like a sheer cut of, of land, it feels a bit like the edge of it feels like it could be like a glacier, you know, it’s got that kind of brutal strength about it. Like a glacier does as well.  

And then you have the sound of water. When it’s inside of a cave, there’s a particular kind of sound, I love that sound.  The sound of  an enclosed cave, when you’re in a cave and you can hear water on the walls. And you can hear the kind of echoing of water inside that. So that’s, I often think about that sound as well as being like a place where I can sit and think about my family.  

It’s just astounding the amount of space. I think when I’m in the city, I forget. So I was really because we’re recording this obviously, in the city. It’s really hard to place yourself there. But it’s like it’s tough, there’s hardly any people. There’s the wind, it’s very windy and flat. It just is a completely different world, you can’t really imagine it. In some ways.  

And it’s kind of luck, it’s a really hard place to survive. So you have to be very collective, you can’t do it on your own. And you’re really aware of that when you’re in that kind of place, you wouldn’t be able to survive that on your own. So you have to be with your people.  I think people can kind of become a little bit, they imagine that they’re able to live on their own when they’re living in a city, but you’re not, you’re not living on your own, you’re living in an infrastructure that’s being made for people.  

Yeah, it’s a different kind of way of understanding yourself in your relationship with others in the continuum of life that can occur through you in your relationship with others. So yeah, it’s an interesting kind of position, to take in relation to knowledge. But also when you’re talking to me about the layers of stones and earth, and the layering of those ideas. And then, you know, the fact that even the most modest kind of archeological estimates of the occupation of this country, we’re talking about thousands of generations of people.  

I talk about this often with students, we might remember a few generations, but to have stories that are continuous for thousands of generations is be almost beyond comprehension, in the same way that it’s almost beyond comprehension to imagine that the Nullarbor and Antarctica were once connected. So there’s kind of like fast and slow things that happen, like really drastic, life changing things that are kind of the end of one time and the beginning of another. And then there’s all of this really slow movement, generational movement, and drifting of sand and time and space. And some ways that’s really, when you think about the worries that we have, or our contemporary crisis in relation to say, the planet, part of it, that, the enormity of it, it can be comforting, in a way. I don’t know how to describe that. But I feel as though when I think about the space, like how insignificant but how significant we can be, but also how we’re part of something that’s really really infinitely large. And that’s, that’s actually a really beautiful way to locate oneself sometimes or like to, to, you know, give yourself some comfort. 

Thinking about the Earth, and loving the Earth is a really important. I love the Nullabor, and I think about it a lot, all the time. And maybe, you know, and it’s obviously because of my matriarchal connection to that Country. But it’s also because the Earth is a living body. Even though we might not understand stones to have sentient qualities, every aspect, every kind is part of the earth. And every part of our bodies is part of that matter. So, you know, if we think about water, or all of the kind of energies that travel around the planet, you know, all of that in our bones, and in our every part of us, so when, you know, I just I feel as I there’s that cycling of, of energy is pretty, you know, beautiful. And important to consider. 

My friend Catarina comes from a place the Kirrabati islands, that was mined for superphosphate. But she was talking about how phosphate mining which is used to create fertilizer, which we you know, obviously then absorbed into our bones. That, you know, literally it’s like the bones of her family and intergenerational kind of thing. And the phosphate there has been plowed into this country, and we’ve eaten it. And we so we contain her country.  

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