My Seven Sisters Dreaming

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‘My Seven Sisters Dreaming’, by Big Skies Collaborator Merrill Findlay, was first published in Dark Sky Dreamings: an Inland Skywriters Anthology (Interactive Press 2019). It explores some of the impacts of the British invasion and colonisation of Wiradjuri Country in the early C19th, and the contribution that Sir Thomas Brisbane, sixth governor of the colony of New South Wales, made to the decimation of the Wiradjuri nation and the almost complete loss of 65,000 years or more of astronomical knowledge from a whitefella perspective.

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Big sky, inland plain, farmstead, veranda, and, across the creek, the fiery glow of Earth’s sun sinking behind the ridge we call the Seven Sisters. If there’s water in the creek, then it glows too, an ephemeral stream of liquid gold snaking through the twilight towards those seven conjoined hills on our horizon. And, slowly the stars, Moon and planets …

I love this view across our farm, its seasons, rhythms and moods. I especially love those Seven Sisters that burst so suddenly, so improbably, from our inland plain. I’ve gazed at them for more than half a century now and from every angle: through the front windows of our old house, from the garden, the paddocks, the shearing shed, creek bed, dam banks and stock route; from horse-back, ag-bikes, tractors, farm utes and cars, even from aircraft and Google Earth. I’ve walked them, climbed them, camped and picnicked beside them, even peed behind some of their biggest bushes. I know these Sisters intimately. They’re part of me. And yet, paradoxically, I know so little about them: who were those seven siblings for whom the ridge was named, where did they live, what happened to them, and what did they mean to the clansfolk who lived here before my mob arrived with their cattle, sheep and ploughs? No-one has been able to tell me, or not definitively. Why this silence?

Seven Sisters Ridge is in the heart of Wiradjuri Country. It entered whitefella records sometime in the nineteenth century when a colonial surveyor inscribed the name on a map. This ‘foot soldier of empire’, whoever he was, probably consulted the manager of the big pastoral station the ridge was then part of, probably even asked the Wiradjuri stockmen what they called it, and he might even have documented some of the stories they told him. But no records of these conversations, if they ever occurred, have survived as far as I know. All we have, therefore, is a ridge stripped of its stories, a toponym stripped of its provenance, seven mythic sisters stripped of their identities, a people stripped of their Country, and we settler-descendants left naked in a degraded environment of our own creation—yet surrounded by the material culture of those who were already here: charcoal from their campfires, tools they left behind, grooves in rock outcrops were they sharpened their axes, paintings on rock shelter walls, burials, bora rings, stone arrangements, dendroglyphs on the oldest remaining eucalypts, and hundreds of other tree scars where they removed slabs of bark for their shields, shelters, coolamons and canoes.

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Scar-tree at the base of Seven Sisters Ridge. The bark removed from this eucalypt would have been used for a canoe, possibly when the Galari-Lachlan River system was flooding. Photo by Merrill Findlay, October 2017.

And the answers to my questions about those seven siblings and their namesake ridge? They’re trapped, I suspect, in the cognitive gaps between the evidence Wiradjuri people left behind, the family memories the pastoral workers passed on to their descendants, and my mob’s silences, occlusions, denials, confabulations and outright lies about what really happened on this plain when whitefellas arrived in the first half of the nineteenth century.

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Satellite photo of Seven Sisters Ridge, Yarrabandai, from Google maps.

But now the Sisters are demanding their stories back. I can’t ignore them, but it’s not my place to ‘re-awaken’ their Wiradjuri stories. All I can do is reach into my own mob’s history to recover some of our own ‘forgotten’ Seven Sisters stories. I must recognise, however, that this ridge was almost certainly a sacred knowledge site and astronomical observatory on the dreaming track which traces the creation journeys of seven young women and one or more men who pursued them across continental Australia and beyond. I know this dreaming by its whitefella name, the Seven Sisters Songline. It’s not a ‘line’, of course, nor a single track; more a memory cache of stories connecting the Sisters’ terrestrial sites with their skyworld, including the nebulous star cluster I know by its ancient Greek name, the Pleiades, and by its more recent scientific label, Messier 45.

The songline encodes the data, knowledge, values, laws, customs and ways of understanding the cosmos developed by Australia’s First Nations peoples over tens of thousands of years. For Wiradjuri people of this inland plain, the stars, the Ridge, the creeks, and other geographical features were mnemonic devices to ensure that this all-important knowledge was remembered and passed on through the generations. In Time-Before-Whitefellas, children born here would have imbibed Seven Sisters stories with their mother’s milk. They would have grown up singing Seven Sisters stories, dancing them, weaving, sculpting, painting and drawing them and, when these children were old enough, they would have been initiated into the stories’ deeper meanings. Such stories would have bound people spiritually, emotionally and intellectually to this inland plain, to Seven Sisters Ridge, to the entire cosmos in ways that I, a settler descendant, can barely imagine.

This knowledge system survived for millennia, but it had one fatal vulnerability. It depended on human memory. If the oral transmission of stories from one generation to the next was interrupted or blocked, if the ceremonies ceased, if the language was lost or degraded and the songs no longer sung, then thousands of years of knowledge would be erased within a single generation.

I was born into a very different knowledge system with very different modes of data storage and transmission, and yet my cultural heritage also includes Seven Sisters stories that are similar to those Wiradjuri people told. The same star cluster which animated their imaginations, regulated their seasonal practices, and connected them conceptually to the rest of the cosmos did the same for my biological and intellectual ancestors. My Seven Sisters stories take me back to priestess astronomers in the ziggurats of ancient Sumeria, in present-day Iraq, for example, and to stargazers in ancient Egypt, Anatolia, Persia, Arabia, India, the Aegean islands and beyond. I gaze in wonder now at the same celestial objects that inspired these ancients, even though I don’t believe the stories they told, except in a mythic way. The stories I internalise tend to be the evidence-based ones we now lump together under the rubric of Science, including Astronomy and Geology — which I googled to learn more about Seven Sisters Ridge.

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Forbes Shire Council has been mining the sediments of the Silurian sea floor beneath Seven Sisters Ridge to build roads. Photo by Merrill Findlay, 2017.

What my Googling revealed, however, was the scale of my own ignorance, because I didn’t know enough to interpret the scientific data I found! I rang a government geologist in Orange, our nearest big town, and asked for help. He knew Seven Sisters Ridge well. Yes, part of the Byong Volcanics, he said. A stratigraphic unit formed some 420 million years ago when viscous lava leaked from fissures in an ocean floor somewhere off the coast of the now-extinct super-continent Gondwanaland. He seemed delighted that a member of the public would be interested enough to ask him about it!

The lava cooled into rhyolite, the pink and grey crystalline rock at the core of each of the seven peaks, he continued. Millions more years of sedimentation, erosion, compaction, distortion and evolution later, a couple of climate changes and mass extinctions, more rifting and continental drifting, another burst of plate tectonics as Gondwanaland broke up and new continents and oceans formed, more heating, cooling, faulting and folding, yet more sedimentation, compression and erosion — and lo, a ridge of seven crystalline peaks on a vast inland plain hundreds of kilometres from any ocean.

What this geologist gave me was another dreaming, a creation story as read from the rocks themselves; a story which allowed me to see Seven Sisters Ridge through the lens of nearly half a billion years of our planet’s geological evolution. I’ve since learnt that the Sisters’ lava leaked from their submarine fissures in a period geologists call the Silurian, a thirty-million-year sequence of terra-forming events identified by one of nineteenth-century Britain’s most prominent gentleman geologists, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, and his wife Lady Charlotte, a skilled amateur geologist in her own right.

In 1831, while British ‘squatters’ were claiming vast tracts of inland New South Wales as grazing land for their cattle and sheep, the Murchisons embarked on a grand carriage tour of old South Wales to collect fossils and study rock formations. They took with them one of their maids, ‘two good grey nags, and a couple of extra saddles for day-trips’, a Romantic European sensibility, and a very Scottish Enlightenment passion for classifying things and imposing order upon the world. What they found inspired one of Geology’s most consequential insights: that fossils in sedimentary rocks in one place could be used to correlate the stratigraphy (and age) of rocks in other places. And yes, the fossilised trilobites and brachiopods they found in old South Wales were the same or very similar to the fossils in the sediments of that now-extinct seafloor beneath Seven Sisters Ridge on the other side of our planet.

The Murchisons named ‘their’ stratigraphic sequence for the Britons who lived in south Wales at the time of the Roman conquest, a people we now remember as the Silures, the Latinised name their conquerors gave them. Sir Roderick presented his new geological classification to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in a paper he co-authored with a fellow geologist Reverend Adam Sedgwick, then developed his ideas further in a monograph he called The Silurian System. By this time, however, Sedgwick and Murchison were fighting a very public border brawl about where, in the emerging Geological Timescale, the Silurian period began and ended. Their spat was resolved decades later by a much younger fossil sleuth, Charles Lapworth, who added his own geological period to the chronology. He named it for the Silures’ northern neighbours, the Ordovices.

Geologists and palaeontologists now agree that the Ordovician period began around 489 million years ago with an evolutionary burst of complex life forms called the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (GOBE). Intriguingly, the GOBE coincided with an extended period of intense meteorite bombardment after a massive asteroid broke up within our solar system. So, did that celestial meteorite storm contribute to, or perhaps even trigger, the rapid proliferation of new lifeforms on Planet Earth in the mid-Ordovician?

And what about the Ice Age that killed off an estimated 85 per cent of species at the end of the Ordovician? Was that mega-extinction event induced by extreme volcanic activity, as some scientists suggest, or by the too-rapid movement of our planet’s continental plates, or by wobbles in Earth’s tilt, or by eccentricities in our planet’s orbit around the sun, as other scientists have hypothesised? Or was it driven by intergalactic forces? A too-close encounter with a super-cloud of galactic dust, or a burst of gamma radiation from a relatively close hypernova, as astronomers have suggested?

Ah, yet more questions I can’t answer! All I know is that right now, hundreds of millions of years after that almost complete annihilation of life on Planet Earth, this sentient being, a very distant relative of the lifeforms that survived the Ordovician-Silurian cataclysm, is tap-tap-tapping away at her laptop in a café in a small country town near her family’s farm searching for words to describe the cosmic improbability that she—and you, dear reader—exist at all and are able to interrogate the universe in this way!

But back to those ancient Britons the Romans called the Silures and Ordovices: what stories did they tell about the cosmos and their place in it? Unfortunately, we can’t know because theirs was an oral culture too. The little we do know about them has been gleaned from artifacts they left behind, landscapes they created, their skeletal remains, DNA and other molecular evidence, folklore, traditions and toponyms associated with them, the Celtic languages some of their descendants still speak, and, of course, from the writings of their Roman conquerors, including the imperial historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, whom I first met in my schoolgirl Latin classes.

These sources tell us that, at the time of the Roman invasions, ancient Britons lived in hierarchical farming communities led by a noble warrior class and a clergy of Druids. We also know that the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades were as important to them as they were to Wiradjuri people. The Pleiades told Silurian and Ordovician farmers when to sow and harvest their crops; they told their seafarers when they could sail safely; and they told the Druids when to conduct their religious rituals and festivals. When the Pleiades reached their highest point in the sky, their culmination, ancient Britons knew it was time to celebrate Samhain, the harvest festival, for example. They also apparently believed that the veil separating the living from the spirits of their dead was thin enough for them to commune with their ancestors at this time of year. The Roman Church appropriated this date as All Saints Day or Hallowmas. Today we call it Halloween—and forget its celestial origins.

Like the Wiradjuri, the Silures resisted the invasion and colonisation of their homeland. Indeed, they weren’t ‘pacified’ until around 77 CE when Tacitus’s father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola who, by then, was governor of the Roman province of Britannia, led a legion across the Mennai Strait to attack the Druid stronghold of Ynys Môn, the island of Mona or Anglesey, in present-day Wales. Agricola’s army defiled and destroyed the sacred sites and massacred the Druids. They also killed the Britons who were defending the island, as well as the refugees, including women and children, who had sought sanctuary there. According to Tacitus, the Druids and the Ordovices were exterminated. Any Silures who survived the massacre were resettled or ‘concentrated’ in a purpose-built settlement the Romans called Venta Silurum near Isca Augusta, the Second Augusta legion’s main fortress in South Wales.

Some sixteen hundred years after the Roman legions withdrew from Britannia this history was grimly repeated when some of the descendants of those ancient Britons’ did to the Wiradjuri what the Romans had done to their ancestors. An all too familiar story: invasion, conquest, colonisation, dispossession, subjugation, oppression and discrimination followed by denial and ‘forgetting’. I’ve heard it told from so many different perspectives and my search for answers to those Seven Sisters questions has revealed to me even more!

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Family memories: Seven Sisters Ridge, Yarrabandai, October 2017.  Photo by Merrill Findlay.

Because I learned that one of the men responsible for setting in motion the cataclysmic events that decimated the Wiradjuri nation and stopped or interrupted the inter-generational transfer of knowledge, including Seven Sisters stories, was, ironically, an astronomer! A privileged member of Scotland’s landed gentry, a son of the Scottish Enlightenment, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, a devout Protestant Christian, and a fellow of the Royal Society of London: Sir Thomas Brisbane, the major general who, in 1822, became the sixth governor of the colony of New South Wales and, according to some, ‘the Father of Australian Science’.

Brisbane didn’t want to govern a penal colony at the farthest reach of the British Empire. All he wanted to do was confirm the shape of our planet (was it a lumpy sphere or pear-shaped?) by measuring a southern meridian and become the first European to catalogue the stars of the southern sky. For Brisbane, the governorship of New South Wales was simply a means to these ends. He disembarked at Sydney Cove in November 1821 with his much younger wife, Lady Anna Maria, and their infant daughter, Isabella. He also brought, at his own expense, two personal staff, astronomer Carl Ludwig Rümker and technician James Dunlop, and all the kit he needed to build and operate an astronomical observatory.

The new governor and his entourage settled into Old Government House in Parramatta. Work began on the observatory almost immediately. Six months later, in May 1822, Brisbane, Rümker and Dunlop began observing and documenting the southern stars and other celestial objects. But Brisbane also had that pesky day job to attend to, the administration of the colony and implementation of the British government’s new policies, including the expansion of the pastoral industry west of the Blue Mountains.

Brisbane’s predecessor, Lachlan Macquarie, had commissioned the first whitefella track across the mountains into Wiradjuri Country a few years earlier but had restricted the number of colonists and convicts who used it. Sir Thomas Brisbane did not. For Wiradjuri people, and the environment they were part of, the consequences of this invasion of foreigners and their livestock were brutal. When the impacts became intolerable, Wiradjuri people launched a guerrilla campaign to defend and liberate their Country as the Silures and Ordovicians had done in Britain. Brisbane retaliated with a declaration of martial law.

Years later, a grandson of one of the beneficiaries of Brisbane’s pastoral expansion into Wiradjuri Country, William Henry Suttor, recounted some of his own family memories from this era. Suttor’s father, also called William, had been overseer on his father’s pastoral station near Bathurst in the 1820s and had befriended local Wiradjuri people, including their resistance leader, Windradyne. Suttor Snr had thus personally witnessed the consequences of Martial Law for Wiradjuri people and had passed these stories on to his children. In recounting them, William Jnr evoked Tacitus’s account of Agricola’s campaigns against the Caledonians, Brisbane’s Celtic ancestors in what is now Scotland. “When martial law had run its course, extermination is the word that most aptly describes the result,” Suttor wrote. “As the old Roman said, ‘they made a solitude and called it peace’.”

That ‘old Roman’ gave these words to Calgacus, a leader of the Caledonians’ military resistance: Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. “To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire: they make a solitude and call it peace.” Solitudinem can also be translated as ‘desert’ or ‘wasteland’, which, for the Wiradjuri who survived Brisbane’s war and pastoral expansion, was an apt description of what they experienced. The horrors, the traumas, the attempted extermination that Brisbane unleashed upon Wiradjuri people still haunt their descendants today.

That view across our farm continues to move me, but now I see Seven Sisters Ridge and its cluster of stars very differently: as through the lens of Sir Thomas Brisbane’s telescope. And yes, there are ghosts, too many of them, but, in the distance, I can sometimes also glimpse the future. Wiradjuri people restoring their ‘lost’ stories, reviving their ‘forgotten’ science and ceremonies, and re-connecting their Ridge to sacred knowledge sites along the Seven Sisters Songline. I can also see we other Inlanders drawing sustenance from the Sisters’ peaks and their companion stars. Because, no matter how conflicted that view is now, no matter how painful, it reminds us that our pasts, presents and possible futures are far more entangled than any single story can tell. And that how we see the cosmos depends on where and when we view it from, and what lenses we use.

******

My thanks to geologist Gary Burton from the Geological Survey of NSW office in Orange, NSW, who explained the geological history of Seven Sisters Ridge to me, and to the staff of Geoscience Australia who gave me the links to relevant geological maps and other references; to my High School Latin teacher who introduced me to Tacitus; and to the Wiradjuri people who’ve educated me about the ongoing intergenerational impacts of colonisation in their communities. All misinterpretations and inaccuracies are my own, though, of course.

Sources used include the following:

Barash, M.S., 2014, Mass extinction of the marine biota at the Ordovidican-Silurian transition due to environmental changes. Oceanology 54 (6), 780-787.

Berger, A. and Q. Yin, 2012. “Modelling the Past and Future Interglacials in Response to Astronomical and Greenhouse Gas Forcing” in The Future of the World’s Climate (2nd ed.), edited by A. Hender-son-Sellers and K. McGuffie, 437-462. Boston: Elsevier Science.

Bhathal, R., 2012. “Some Scientific aspects of Parramatta Observatory: Symposium – Commemorating Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane” in Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 145 & 446: 111-127.

Condie, K.C., 2011. “Great Events in Earth History” in Earth as an Evolving Planetary System (2nd ed.). K. C. Condie (ed), 357-435. Boston: Academic Press

Geoscience Australia, Australian Statagraphic Units Database, Byong Volcanics. http://dbforms.ga.gov.au/pls/www/geodx.strat_units.sch_full?wher=stratno=3226, accessed 6 July 2018.

Kelly, L., 2016. The Memory Code, Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Liston, C., 2012. “Sir Thomas Brisbane-a man of scientific method” in Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Sydney: Royal Society of New South Wales.

Makdougall Brisbane, T. and W. Tasker (eds.), 1860. Reminiscences of General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane.Edinburgh: Thomas Constable.

Brewer, Richard J., 2002. Birthday of the Eagle: The Second Augustan Legion and the Roman Military Machine, Amgueddfeydd ac Orielau Cenedlaethol Cymru, Cardiff: National Museums & Galleries of Wales.

Melott, A. L. and B. C. Thomas, 2009. “Late Ordovician geographic patterns of extinction compared with simulations of astrophysical ionising radiation damage” in Paleobiology35(3): 311-320.

Murchinson, R. I., 1839. The Silurian System. London: James Murray.

O’Donoghue, J., 2016. “The second coming” in Origin, Evolution, Extinction: The epic story of life on Earth. New Scientist: The Collection3(2).

Pohl, A., et al., 2016. “Glacial onset predated Late Ordovician climate cooling” in Paleoceanography31(6).

Sherwin, L., 1980. “Faunal Correlation of the Siluro-Devonian units, Mineral Hill-Trundle-Peak Hill Area” in Quarterly Notes: Geological Survey of New South Wales39: 1-13.

Suttor, W. H., 1887. Australian stories retold and sketches of country life. Bathurst: Glyndwr Whalan.

Tacitus, G. C., 1999 [c. 98 CE], A. Church and W.J. Brodribb (trs), Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola (The Agricola), Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, New York City: Fordham University.

Tyler, P. J., 2012. Sir Thomas Brisbane-Patron of Colonial Science in Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Sydney: Royal Society of New South Wales.

Purchase Dark Sky Dreamings from Interactive Press here >>

Page created by Merrill Findlay on 7 November, 2019. Last revised 4 August 2020.

Permalink: https://bigskiescollaboration.wordpress.com/2019/11/08/my-seven-sisters-dreaming/

2 thoughts on “My Seven Sisters Dreaming

  1. Nice to see your perceptive piece on your Seven Sisters peaks with pictures. I spent quite a few hours at the (flawed and frustrating) Seven Sisters exhibition in Canberra where the eastern stories pretty much dwindled to nothing. Forbes Shire treating the ridge as a gravel pit is akin to the vandalism of the Warrumbungle Shire knowingly bulldozing an ancient quarry to make a road up to the CSIRO Radio Telescope (now abandoned). There is also a largely unwritten, unspoken history of the escapees who crossed the Blue Mountains long before Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth. Their relationship with groups like the Wiradjuri was on quite different terms as they were largely dependent on them for survival. The early settlers, who were engaged in rapaciously claiming land, kept coming across signs of their occupation and often cohabitation with indigenous groups. So much we don’t know about our relatively recent past.

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    1. Thank you, Simon. I didn’t mention it in my essay, but there’s now quite a strong movement in south-eastern Australia amongst younger First Nations people to revive ancient knowledge sites and reconnect the songlines, including the many Seven Sisters sites. Scars like Forbes Shire Council’s gravel pit and the desecration you mentioned will remain as physical memories of other very different ways of being, of course. But future generations will have plenty of those …. In your part of the country as in mine.

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