Becoming a Symbiote

by Fionn Quinlan – First appeared at Small Giants Academy Oct 11 2021

I was born into a city. Its seed was a convict settlement. Yet it was on Bundjalung land and country that I grew. Knowing this much alone could tell you my story. But first I must ask, what do you know of cities? What do you know of Bundjalung? Me knowing this will tell me some of your story.

When I look at many cities, I see a lot of straight lines and squares. From a distance they appear as anthills. Ant colonies conjured from the landscape.

When I look at Bundjalung country, I see ocean, rivers, creeks and verdant green hills littered with small towns and farms. Segments of ancient rainforest reminding us of another time.

For as long as I can remember I wanted to make more of that ancient rainforest. I wanted there to be this arching, overpowering green encasing my concrete clad school. I wanted vines to swing on and trees to climb. Cockatoos to screech when the teachers wouldn’t stop talking and Pademelons to cheekily distract me from my algebra.

So I planted and planted with my father and my family. I thought that if I just kept on planting I’d be like the book my father would read to me, called The Man Who Planted Trees. A beautiful story of a single man returning life to a barren landscape through the simple act of planting seeds for decades.

Through travel and study I was afforded a glimpse into the larger world and its workings. I began to know where the things that littered my daily routine came from. How they came into being. My computer of rare earth minerals extracted using slave labour, my clothing too much the same, and my food and the house I lived in not much better.

I came to see this picture writ large upon the world. A single species with a single purpose – to consume. Enact the goal of a virus. The mindset of a cancer cell. A parasite upon the globe like no other. The humans had arrived and we weren’t leaving until everything was consumed, converted, tilled, toiled and trashed.

I decided I’d take back my agency. I’d take responsibility for what it was I was consuming. I became vegetarian, only bought second-hand goods, rode everywhere, volunteered at organic farms and soup kitchens, joined protests, attended every permaculture and green living course I could find, and moaned at all my friends and family to change along with me (sorry).

It wasn’t until I began living on the land, growing my food, building my house, connecting with the land base that I began to realise that it was a story which had held my attention. It was a story that had me believe that the only option I had was to consume or be consumed. This story is our culture.

I’m lucky enough to live on Bundjalung land. Stewarded by a living Indigenous culture that has nurtured it for tens of thousands of years. Working with the rhythms of the landscape. Identifying and discerning patterns to thrive in a land that is as beautiful as it can be harsh.

In my admiration of the Indigenous culture of my local area, I came to scratch the surface of a broader Indigenous narrative. One that penetrates every continent. From the human-made, life-enhancing soils of the Amazon basin – Terra Preta, to the diverse and productive Chagga home gardens of Kilimanjaro, people of place are providing for themselves and their neighbourhood whilst building biodiversity, sequestering carbon and building soil. I find these happenings deeply exciting. They are symbols of hope in a dying world. And they’re everywhere.

At the Climate Action Summit of 2019 ,United Nations Secretary General,  Antonio Guterres said, “If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardise life itself.”

So I’ve said to myself, “I want to change the ways of my life. I really want to inhabit this landscape meaningfully. I want my children to walk here in clean air, water and soil, for generations to come.” The answer is resoundingly clear. The best way in which I can foster life is by becoming a creature of place. Just like myriad of Indigenous peoples the world over I must develop context specific methods to create fecundity.

To do so I must follow a new story. One of the symbiote as opposed to the parasite. We have a choice. I know which one I want to be. Which will you choose?

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