By MOLLY SCHMIDT
My first memory is, I can hear crows and smell toast. I’m standing in a cot and I can hear people talking in another room.
Noongar artist Sharyn Egan walks one step ahead of her scruffy little dog. “It’s Warren, or Wazza for short,” she tells me.
I follow them both through the bush, Egan in a spotty brown jacket, and Wazza catching leaves in his fur.
Heavy clouds hang above the Beeliar wetlands but, despite the cold air, sunlight filters through the trees.
Egan was taken from her parents when she was about three years old, as a child of the Stolen Generations. But through welfare records, she has pieced together her story. It begins here, at the Beeliar wetlands, where she spent the first years of her life at a camp with her mother.
“I don’t remember my parents, but it’s sort of nice knowing my Mum lived around Beeliar, staying there and walking on the same place I walk now. It gives me a strong connection to the area,” she says.
Egan kneels in front of a marri tree and dips her finger in the sticky red sap that fills a hole in the bark. “This is a woman’s tree, a medicine tree. You can use it for stomach aches and for skin rashes,” she says, collecting some of the deep red sap in a bright yellow coffee cup.
“I use materials from this very place in my artworks. I use it like paint, with balga resin too. Beautiful colours.”
We continue on, the damp grass leaving wet streaks on our legs.
At a balga, Egan stops again.
“In the sixties and seventies white people used the core of the grass tree to turn wood. They made beautiful vases and lampshades and candle-holders,” she says. “I collect the vases, because they don’t make them anymore.”
Egan uses the vases in exhibitions; presenting the turned wood in contrast to the unrefined core of the grass tree.
It begins to rain, so we huddle under an enormous paperbark tree. Egan looks for the direction of the rain and finds a patch of dry grass.
“Stand on this side,” she says, “the tree will keep us dry here.”
She gently lifts a piece of loose paperbark. “See this here? It would have been used as a shelter. See, it’s dry underneath.”
She presses her hands flat on the bark. “It’s like a body; you can feel the bones under the flesh.”
As the rain clears, we carry on until we reach the fence that kept protestors out as the bulldozers churned trees to mulch. Egan stands right up close, her hands resting on the hard metal. After the magic of the bushwalk in, the dirt and fallen trees are painful to look at.
“It’s just so sad, it’s beyond anger. It’s just a big sadness. It’s gone.”
“I can’t believe it’s gone for a road that won’t even be built now … You can see the destruction; tyres have left their tracks.”
We watch a djidi djidi dip between the fence and land on the other side. “Every time I drive past and see these mounds of woodchips I think, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s just ridiculous. Woodchips! What are they going to do with them?’.”
Egan squeezes the fence a little, then steps back.
“It’s like our culture has to be bricks and mortar. If they can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. The Beeliar wetlands are important because they are one of the last remaining places like this.
“I feel a sense of belonging here. I am spiritual but I don’t think about it or talk about it.
“It just is.”
By MOLLY SCHMIDT