It is not uncommon to hear the comment from Australians who have visited the Outback – even from those of no particular religious bent – that it was in some way a spiritual experience. In particular, being in the vicinity of Uluru is often characterised as engendering a special feeling of a more or less religious kind. Having travelled extensively in Central Australia over the past thirty years, I can attest to having had these feelings frequently. Every time I see Uluru, I find it hard not to become tearful.
What should we make of these reactions?
I write this as a non-indigenous Australian. I use the words "we" and "us" to refer to me and my kind.
It could be dismissed as nothing more than Australians, particularly those who live in the cities, getting a bit emotional about anything that provides a vivid reminder of what is distinctive about being an Aussie. Sitting in your car at the traffic lights doesn't provide that, but seeing a few of those startlingly red sand hills in the Red Centre does. Enjoying a latte at the local caf doesn't, but unexpectedly getting to sniff a few crushed gum leaves when you're in some out-of-the-way place overseas does.
Even in the wake of the Sydney Olympics, with national pride surging and our traditional cultural cringe performing like the $A exchange rate, I think this view is too cynical. We do need to have a sense of who we are among the peoples of the world. As non-indigenous Australians, particularly if we've been here for at least two or three generations, we lack the national historical identity that comes with being a Greek or a Scot or a Russian or a Korean. But the feeling I'm talking about is not so much one of comparing and contrasting ourselves with others, but rather one of respect and wonderment and a sense of the overwhelming aspects of nature.
English theologian Don Cupitt tells a story of climbing a mountain, and nearing the peak, hearing another solitary climber who was quite oblivious to his approach, say "I'm so grateful". For me, that goes close to encapsulating the feeling that can be brought on by seeing a gibber plain stretching to the horizon, or the baffling "many heads" of Katatjuta (The Olgas), or the ancient waterless course of the Finke River, or a carpet of poached egg daisies covering a sand hill after rain.
But still, there's something more. When I look out across a landscape near Wagga or Winton or Wilpena, I have a subtly different feeling to that when I do the same somewhere overseas. It's not to do with any particular aspect of the vista such as the gum trees or the weather or the galahs, it's not even to do with whether I'm familiar with the actual area – it's to do with being at home. I suspect this is an inkling of the Aboriginal notion of being owned by the land.
It was commonly assumed by the Europeans who came to Australia that assimilation was a one-way street: Aborigines had to adapt to European culture, not the other way round. This has proved to be a particularly gross piece of cultural imperialism in respect of attitudes to the land, since the Aboriginal people had had at least 40,000 years' experience in dealing with Australia's unique ecosystem. Our tendency to ignore the wisdom embedded in Aboriginal culture – and in general it has been a matter of ignoring rather than evaluating and rejecting – has been a national loss.
It is useful to consider the relationship to the land which the early European settlers brought with them. Britain in particular had virtually nothing corresponding even vaguely to the Australian bush, let alone the outback. Strenuous efforts were made by settlers to reproduce the "home" landscape in Australia (even to the extent of a few rabbits and foxes!) It is only in the last couple of decades that a suburban garden consisting of native trees, shrubs and grasses has become an acceptable idea. The "desert" and the "wilderness", both of which carried biblical associations of a generally negative kind, were to be either avoided, or conquered and transformed. "Good" land was fertile and well-watered, with a temperate climate.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought forth a few European advocates for the beauty and value of wild, as opposed to "civilized" places, and these can perhaps be seen as the forerunners of the ecology movements of the late twentieth century. Rousseau argued that modern man should incorporate some primitive qualities into his distorted "civilized" lifestyle. Alexis de Tocqueville, when visiting the United States, expressed a desire to travel for pleasure into the virgin forest, but it was hard to convince his American hosts that his real interests lay in matters other than lumber getting or land speculation. Lord Byron was an outspoken and influential advocate for the solitude of wild places. In the US, Thoreau provided an eloquent defence of the virtues of a blend of refinement and wildness. But such views did not gain wide acceptance until much later.
The European exploration of Australia was driven primarily by a desire to find and exploit productive land. Those who subsequently took up the challenge to farm the areas thus opened up found themselves locked in a struggle, sometimes literally to the death, with the vagaries of weather and the tyranny of distance. The notion of the land as a fickle and dangerous adversary was reinforced. The idea of one's person being in some way identified with the land was (understandably) not immediately obvious to those who struggled through drought and flood and rabbit plague.
More recent times with greater opportunities for travel have given many Australians a much greater exposure to the Outback – the Australian "wilderness". There has also come to be a heightened awareness of the nature and value of Aboriginal culture, particularly through the reconciliation movement. Peter Read's bookBelonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership (Cambridge University Press, 2000) is a good example of our increasing sensitivity to indigenous issues. He raises a question – relatively unheard of 50 years ago – that as non-indigenous Australians we cannot avoid: "I wonder whether I really belong."