Listening learning knowing

Every time I attend Aboriginal gatherings, or spend time with family, or go to workshops – which is often, but not often enough – there is a strong sense that I am hearing and seeing and learning what is true. It is almost obvious, yet not.

For example, today I learnt that animals smell smoke, and respond by moving to higher ground, or up trees. This is true of mammals and marsupials, insects and invertebrates. Animals respond to fire. As soon as I hear this, the evidence is presented (I think like a lawyer, it is my burden). A fire is lit. The smoke drifts. We are alerted to checking the signs, to reading the wind, and told to listen and look… after a time, up. In the trees. Look. See. Hear. Listen. The animals have smelt the smoke. Of course they have. Like smoke is new to an ant?

To hear without listening, or to look without seeing – is like to touch without feeling, and be, sometimes, alone.

To listen is to sift sounds from noise, and make meaning. It is to rapidly separate and reunite point after point of contact – symbols, referents, commonalities, similarities, the divergent and the radically different. In ancient Greek, the polis – the political sphere – is a point. A point draws people, it demands attention. A point sends out a signal beyond its immediate space, whether a light on a hill, a cliff-top warning, or a circle of fire. The point carries the message: human knowledge resides here. Here is the light and enlightenment that is generated by human beings sharing observations of the world around us.

When ancient knowledge is shared, it resonates. This weekend I attended a workshop on firestick farming. It was one step in a long journey of extraordinarily tenacious work over the last ten years on the ground and 40000 years of knowledge passed down to family, and now, community. Ancient knowledge resonates so deeply that the moment of sharing carries the truth and universal nature of its telling. Listening to ancient knowledge is powerful, too. It is quiet, and peer-influenced: everyone else is listening intently. It is independent, and shared: in the presence of each other, we process what we hear through the prism of personal experience. And we know it to be true.


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