Presentation by Merrill Findlay to the 28th National Australian Convention of Amateur Astronomers (NACAA) at the Mercure Convention Centre, Ballarat, Victoria, over the Easter Weekend, 30 March to 2 April 2018. Revised version. Above: the official group photo of most of the NACAA attendees.
Abstract: The Big Skies Collaboration brings together arts practitioners, astronomers, and local communities within a region I’ve defined as southeastern Australia’s 700 Kilometre Array of astronomical observatories, which extends from CSIRO’s ATCA near Narrabri, in NW NSW, to Mt Stromlo and Tidbinbilla in the ACT. Our current creative interventions include the Inland Astro Trail, the Skywriters Project, the Wiradjuri Astronomy Project, and the Wiradjuri Skywriters Pilot Project. I will be discussing these and other projects and will be inviting NACAA members to be involved.
I’d like to first acknowledge the Wathaurong People, the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on, their elders past, present and future, and the deep astronomical and mathematical knowledge they passed on, generation to generation, for thousands of years. I’d also like to thank NACAA and the Ballarat Municipal Observatory committee for the opportunity to participate in this convention.
INTRODUCTION: WE’RE ALL STORYTELLERS
I’m not an astronomer! I’m not into tinkering with telescopes, big lenses, fast cameras or imaging software. What I tinker with are words. I’m a writer and cultural entrepreneur with a background in the arts, humanities and social sciences. A professional teller of stories. You might be wondering, therefore, what I’m doing at an amateur astronomy convention!
From my perspective, however, you’re all storytellers too! Storytelling is a condition of being human. We all tell and imbibe stories or narratives. We’re immersed in them from even before birth. Stories are how we cognise the world or make sense of it. The stories we’re exposed to over the course of our lives define who we are as individuals, families, groups, communities, organisations, nations, and civilisations. We believe some of the stories we’re exposed to, so internalise and enact them. Others we reject. The consensus among cognitive scientists, narrative psychologists and scholars in related fields is that ‘We become who we are through telling stories about our lives and living the stories we tell’.
We’ve inherited this capacity for storytelling from very distant common ancestors, of course, as we have our innate curiosity, our creativity, and our propensity for finding patterns in seemingly random phenomena, such as the stars in the night sky. Our hominid forebears probably began finding patterns in the sky and telling stories about the stars, moon and planets as soon as their capacity for symbolic thought evolved an estimated 500,000 years ago, perhaps even before they could communicate in spoken language.  Since then we’ve populated the night with a multitude of sky-beings and other imagined entities and, through the power of narrative, have projected onto them our deepest anxieties and aspirations. And we’re still doing this. Like our distant ancestors, we still measure our days, our seasons, our celebrations by the apparent movement of the Sun, Moon, stars and planets across the sky, and we still draw great spiritual, emotional and intellectual sustenance from them.
Humanity’s astro-imaginary is immense: a vast ancestral tapestry of celestial stories stretching across cultures, continents and planetary times zones. Many of these skystories have been forgotten, lost or destroyed over the millennia but we humans are adding ever more stories to fill the gaps as we continue to explore this universe and our place in it, and speculate about other beings, other planets, other universes in a multiverse of skystories. For our species, for all of us, the night sky remains an infinite source of inspiration, wonder, awe – and unanswered questions.
700 KILOMETRE ARRAY
The Big Skies Collaboration draws on this sense of awe and wonder we experience when we gaze at celestial phenomena, and taps into our innate capacities for storytelling, pattern-making, creativity and curiosity. It brings together arts practitioners, astronomers and local communities to work together for the common good – an ideal very much alive in the arts and humanities as it is in the sciences – but within a very specific region we’ve dubbed the 700 Kilometre Array or 700KA of observatories.
Our Array is a bit different from other astronomical arrays, such as the Square Kilometre Array, the Australia Telescope Compact Array, and the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array, for example, in which the constituent parts are all very similar. Our Array consists of hundreds, possibly thousands of very different observatory sites from which people have been gazing at the sky for at least 60,000 years. It includes an unknown number of sites from where the region’s many First Nations peoples have observed celestial objects; several very famous twentieth century research telescopes, such as CSIRO’s Parkes and Narrabri radio observatories, the Anglo-Australian, Skymapper, and the other world-class instruments at ANU’s Siding Spring Observatory; the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network; several abandoned tracking station sites from the era of NASA’s moon missions; dozens of private and group-owned observatories, such as the historic Milroy Observatory operated by NACAA’s Donna Burton at Coonabarabran, Peter Starr’s Dubbo and Coona Observatories, Ray Pickard’s Bathurst Observatory Research Facility, and sites operated by groups such as the Central West Astronomical Society at Parkes and the Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club; countless heritage sites from which settlers and visitors have gazed at our southern sky for the first time; plus hundreds of backyards, parks, paddocks, and other dark sky places where locals and visitors continue to explore the cosmos at their leisure.
Geographically our Array stretches from Narrabri, Tamworth and Armidale in northern New South Wales to Mount Stromlo and Tidbinbilla in the Australian Capital Territory; and East/West from the inland slopes of the Great Dividing Range to the riverine plains of western NSW. It does not, however, include any sites on the coastal side of the Great Dividing Range where most Australians now live. We focus exclusively on the inland side of the Great Divide – where the air is cleaner, the cities and towns smaller and further apart, the nights darker, the stars brighter and more numerous to the naked eye, and the Milky Way, that great River in the Sky, more glorious.
On our side of the Great Divide, locals also tend to be poorer, older, less healthy, less well educated, less ethnically diverse, more conservative, and have access to fewer cultural, social, educational and employment opportunities than do people living in or near the metropolitan centres on the eastern side of the Divide. Many small inland communities are struggling to survive as elders grow old and die and young people leave town to further their education, find jobs, better cultural opportunities and to enjoy a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. These inequality gaps between people living on the east coast and Australia’s rural and remote inland appear to be widening. (And I won’t even mention the National Broadband Network or mobile phone reception!)
OUR MISSION AND GOALS
The arts and creative industries are now generally acknowledged to be key drivers of economic and social development, as are the traditional STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), including astronomy.We Big Skies Collaborators believe, therefore, that, as Creatives, as moral agents, we can do our bit towards reducing some of the inequality gaps we’ve observed by working with inland communities to offer new cultural opportunities. That is our mission. Our goals are simple.
- We want to produce, inspire, and support new creative works – new skystories – about people’s relationship with the cosmos, as experienced from within our 700KA region
- We want to catalyse new cultural, social, educational, economic and other opportunities in inland regional, rural and remote communities through our work
- We want to nurture a deeper, richer, more informed sense-of-place in inland communities by acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of people who, like us, have gazed at the night sky from within our 700KA region over the last 60,000 years or more, and
- We want to help attract visitors and new settlers to the Inland to experience the wonders of our dark sky and contribute to the cultural, social and economic development of our region
Because we know, from our own experience, that when creative thinkers, regardless of their backgrounds, collaborate with local communities, then miracles can happen: new stories, new identities, new opportunities, new aspirations, and new directions.
INLAND ASTRO-TRAIL INC.
One of our current creative interventions, the Inland Astro-Trail, responds very directly to these challenges. I first proposed this concept in a blog post back in 2016 and raised the idea again in a discussion panel I chaired at one of our gigs in Parkes last year. The panel consisted of five inland astronomers —Donna Burton and Peter Starr whom I’ve already mentioned, Les Dalrymple from Billimari, cultural astronomer Trevor Leaman from Orange, and the Mayor of Parkes, Cr Ken Keith OAM. Their support for the Inland Astro-Trail was unanimous. Some of us in the room that day wondered, however, why it hadn’t been done already. Why hadn’t our array of inland observatories already been recognised as a globally significant astro-tourism asset? Look at the map and join the dots! It’s a no brainer! The Newell Highway, the main route between Melbourne and Brisbane, as the backbone of our astro-trail with multiple tracks branching off it to link some of our planet’s most ancient astro-sites, and some of its most modern.
We creatives kept talking about it and one day, at a gathering of skywriters in the small town of Molong, the planets aligned! By early afternoon we’d spontaneously founded a new organisation to develop the Inland Astro-Trail, we’d elected our first committee, paid a nominal membership fee and voted to register our new organisation as an incorporated association. Donna Burton, as vice-president, is the only astronomer on the executive committee of our new Inland Astro-Trail Inc. The rest of us are writers and journalists of various kinds, except for our treasurer (the only bloke), who is a local government building surveyor and, in his spare time, a passionate audiophile. The progress this unlikely group is making is slow because we’re all juggling work and family responsibilities, but we’ve taken the first steps — which I’ll return to shortly.
The Inland Astro-Trail emerged from another of the Big Skies Collaboration’s creative interventions, the Skywriters Project, which has registered more than 100 creative writers within our 700 KA region, plus around 100 more who are members of the New England Writers Centre in Armidale, and established a dozen skywriters hubs in local libraries. Our skywriters are now working on stories about their own or other peoples’ (and other entities?) relationships with the cosmos, as experienced, in some way, from within our 700KA, for an anthology to be published in 2019.
Even though our publishing deadline is months away, some of our keenest skywriters, most of whom have never been published before, are already sending me their stories.
So now I’d like to invite NACAA’s astronomers to participate in our Skywriters Project too by contributing your own skystories for our anthology. Many of you have observed the night sky from our 700KA region — I’m thinking of all those inland star parties, for example — so you must have some wonderful skystories to tell. Just register yourselves via our website and start writing. Your contributions can be in any genre — poetry or prose, fact or fiction, speculative or ‘real life’ – and up to around 3000 words long.
WIRADJURI ASTRONOMY PROJECT
Another of our Big Skies Collaboration interventions is Trevor Leaman’s Wiradjuri Cultural Astronomy Project which is inspiring so many of us to learn more about First Nations astronomy. Trevor is researching archival records to recover lost or damaged knowledge of the Wiradjuri night sky for his PhD and analysing site locations and horizon profiles to demonstrate how Wiradjuri stone arrangements could have been used as observatories. He is undertaking his research project through the University of NSW under the co-supervision of astronomer Duane Hamacher, Senior Research Fellow at Monash Indigenous Studies Centre and Adjunct Fellow in the Astrophysics Group at the University of Southern Queensland.
As part of his research project, Trevor commissioned a series of constellation graphics by Wiradjuri artist Scott Towney from Peak Hill. Scott’s images were first shown in 2017 as a Stellarium installation entitled Wiradjuri Murriyang, or Wiradjuri Skyworld, at Cementa, the Festival of Contemporary Art at Kandos, and exhibited again later that year at our Skywriters ‘Big Gig’ in Parkes co-hosted with Parkes Shire Council, Arts OutWest and the Central West Astronomical Society’s AstroFest.
Wiradjuri Murriyang was the first exposure many locals, including some Wiradjuri people, had ever had to First Nations astronomy — and it changed the way they saw the night sky. For those of us who’ve viewed Scott Towney’s images, the Southern Cross is, once again, a great celestial tree marking the grave of an esteemed warrior. Alpha and Beta Centaurii are a pair of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, the Mouyi, flying towards the sacred tree. Orion, the ancient Babylonians’ Heavenly Shepherd, the deity Sah, or Father of the Gods, of the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Greeks’ great hunter, is, once again, the Wiradjuri Creator Baiame. Scorpius is Guggaa, the Tree Goanna; Canopus is Waagan the Crow; Corona Australis is Guguburra, the Kookaburra; and we have several Wiradjuri wedge-tailed eagles, a male and a female, flying across the sky. In the Wiradjuri skyworld, the constellation Aquila, Eagle in Latin, is the male eagle Maliyan, the constellation Lyra is his wife Maliyan Nnguubaanbukarr, and Corona Borealis is their nest, Maliyan Wollai. The Pleiades cluster represents the same seven sisters as it does in most other cultures, however.
Even for me, a whitefella, it is deeply moving to now be able to recognise ancient Australian constellations in our southern sky, so how much more so must it be for Wiradjuri people as they reclaim their astro-heritage?
As many scholars have observed, the universality of the Pleiades, Orion and Aquila skystories suggests a common origin, possibly in Africa before our ancestors migrated to southwest Eurasia and beyond. And, intriguingly, the Milky Way, which is associated with Wawi the Rainbow Serpent in Australia, is known as the Great River in the Sky in both Australian First Nations astronomies and in ancient Chinese astronomy. Is this just coincidence, or does it mean something more? A subject for another PhD thesis perhaps.
WIRADJURI SKYWRITERS PILOT PROJECT
The Big Skies Collaboration projects that are currently taking up most of my time, however, are set in the small remote town of Condobolin on the Galari-Lachlan River in central western NSW, where I was born and spent the firsts eight years of my childhood. I’m working with the Wiradjuri Study Centre and local community members on a project we’ve called the Wiradjuri Skywriters Pilot, to recover, record and share Wiradjuri skystories and other knowledge, and celebrate 60,000+ years of cultural continuity. Related to this is the Condo SkyFest now being organised being organised by Wiradjuri Condobolin Corporation with the support of Lachlan Shire Council, Arts OutWest, local schools, Charles Sturt University, and other organisations. [June 2018: A meeting of the SkyFest working group confirmed that the first SkyFest would be held on 9-10 November 2018.)
The little town of Condobolin has a human population of less than 3,000, of whom some 700 claim Wiradjuri or other First Nations identities according to the 2016 Census. For thousands of years, people had encoded their knowledge into stories about ancestral beings and natural phenomena, such as ridge lines, waterways and celestial objects along what are now popularly known as songlines, and passed these stories on through dance, song, recitations and rituals. These performances were part of a sophisticated mnemonic strategy which ensured that knowledge was accurately stored as living memories and orally transmitted through time one generation to the next.
This knowledge system worked for thousands of generations. It could not survive the impacts of the British invasion and colonisation of Wiradjuri Country though, nor the discriminatory church and government policies which followed. As people were dispossessed of their land, as they were prevented from walking Country, performing ceremonies, visiting sacred sites, even speaking their own language, as Wiradjuri elders explained to me, their knowledge system collapsed. Millennia of encoded knowledge was either lost or remembered only as decontextualised fragments of bigger stories.
The good news is, however, that in the twenty-first century Condo’s Wiradjuri people are recoveriing and reclaiming their ancestral stories and creatively interpreting them in new ways. A group of women who meet at the Wiradjuri Study Centre’s Sista Shed each week to do traditional weaving with Big Skies Collaborator Bev Coe, a local Wiradjuri fibre artist and Master Weaver, are now creating their own constellation-themed artworks, for example. They are especially inspired by Seven Sisters Ridge near one of the large pastoral stations that some of their relatives once worked on as stockmen, shearers, housemaids and managers. The Wiradjuri Skywriters Pilot Project and Condo SkyFest are giving them opportunities to share these reclaimed skystories and pass them on to their children and grandchildren, and to the rest of the community. An immensely affirming project.
I have to say I feel very privileged to be working with these women as they rediscover and reinterpret their astro-heritage through our Big Skies Collaboration. Especially since some of my own relatives were complicit in their dispossession nearly 150 years ago. Like all settler-descendants, I’m a beneficiary of their loss. I feel the debt profoundly.
My wish now is that the Condo SkyFest will grow into a major annual event on our Inland Astro-Trail calendar to attract hundreds, perhaps thousands of visitors to this little inland town, and that it will, in time, spawn new businesses and new job opportunities for local people. I also hope it will inspire young Wiradjuri to study astronomy and related STEAM (the ‘A’ is for Arts) disciplines at university and take their people’s ancient traditions in new and thrilling directions.
EXTENDING THE 700 KILOMETRE ARRAY
Let me throw you another Big Skies idea though. What if we pushed the fuzzy boundaries of our 700 Kilometre Array further south to include Ballarat Observatory in Wathaurong Country, say, and extended the Inland Astro-Trail north along the Newell Highway and its connecting roads into Queensland? What if the 700 KA became the 1700 Kilometre Array? A big project, but, on behalf of the Inland Astro-Trail Inc. executive committee, I invite you to be part of it! So let’s talk!
I hope we’ll be able discuss this and other big ideas at the symposium we’ll be co-hosting later this year to coincide with the first AGM of Inland Astro-Trail Inc. It would be great to see you there. We’ll let you know date and details soon.
 M.Andrews cited in Sclater, S. D. (2003)”What is the subject?” Narrative Inquiry 13(2): 317-330.
 Corballis, M. C. (2017) “The evolution of language: Sharing our mental lives”, Journal of Neurolinguistics, v. 43:B, 120-132; Robert Allen Mahaney (2014) “Artifactual Symbols: The Catalytic Role of Material Culture in the Emergence of Symbolic Thought”, Time and Mind, 7:3, 279-295.
 This date is extrapolated from Giles Hamm et al, “Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia”, Nature 539, 10 Nov. 2016, pp. 280-283, and the recent work of other scholars.
 Potts, “Art and Innovation: An evolutionary economic view of the Creative Industries”, UNESCO Observatory, https://education.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/1105721/art-innovation.pdf, accessed 8 April 2018. Kathryn Grushka, 2018, “Creative industries are essential for our future economy”, EduMatters, Australian Association for Research in Education, 4 February, 2018, http://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=2692, last accessed 8 April 2018
 ABS Quick Stats for the Condobolin statistical area available at http://www.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/quickstat/SSC11002. Condobolin township community profile stats are available at http://www.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/communityprofile/UCL115039?opendocumen. Both sites last accessed 9 April 2017.
For more information, please contact bigskiescollaboration[at]gmail.com
Skywriters Project and Wiradjuri Skywriters Pilot Project gratefully acknowledges the financial support we’ve received from the Regional Arts Fund, through project partner Arts OutWest, and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, and in-kind support from ANU’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Big Skies Collaborators, and project partners; libraries and local government authorities within the 700KA region, and from other individuals, groups and institutions who are contributing to our diverse projects.
Page published 11 April 2018. Updated 4 June 2018 with the addition of the names of the Murie Elders, the date of the first Condo SkyFest, plus a belated acknowledgement of financial and in-kind support. Last updated 21 September 2019.