A New Flowering – poppies amongst the desert loving plants

This weekend in Alice Springs ANZAC Hill is the centre of a ceremony of sacred significance to a great number of people. This year’s centenary of the fighting which gave us ANZAC Day has been identified as the bloody event which – more than any other bloody battle – marks the formation of Australia as a fair dinkum nation, rather than a collection of British colonies.

The blood red poppy is the plant which, in our collective imaginations, has come to represent the loss of life and other forms of real sacrifice which this bloody birth required. Perhaps for this reason rosemary is sidelined from the striking ANZAC displays.

The Alice Spring RSL is located on a back road at the foot of ANZAC Hill away from the central business area, on Schwarz Crescent .

The RSL HQ just happens to be about the closest building to the sacred place which, according to the booklet by David Brooks, Arrernte people consider to be the real central point of Mparntwe – an area known as Tyuretye (Choritja). This area is part of a complex of sacred features from what we know as the Dreamtime.

Schwartz Crescent crosses the Todd River (Lhere Mparntwe) near a site – Atnelkentyarliweke Athirnte – associated with the Dreaming Caterpillars. ANZAC Hill itself is part of the Dreaming complex, with two Arrernte names Untyeye-artwilye and Atnelkentyarliweke, which relate to Corkwood and Caterpillar Dreamings.

In other words, on this very special ANZAC Day weekend, in the very centre of Australia we have a situation where the hearts of two sacred life-narratives exist side by side – but with little real communication between the two.

Picture – looking at Atnelkentyarliweke Athirnte and Alice Springs RSL


I am told that four indigenous horsemen will ride in the ANZAC parade on Saturday, with 12 others leading horses.

All very good. But when I visited ANZAC Hill this morning (Friday 24 April) I noticed that the team of indigenous workmen (about a dozen or so) putting up protective scaffolding around the monument had the letter B on their work vests and were being overseen by a prison official. He mentioned to me, after I asked where the poppy display was, that this work would ‘keep the prisoners happy’.

“Just how happy?” I wondered. I sensed I was not to talk with these men, although I did say hullo as I walked past. They were outside, yes, but this was not time for ‘visitors’

I gained a sense of what a guard – a friendly chap – of prisoners of war might say in an occupied country. And a sense of what an everyday citizen, myself, might accept as normal something which is far from it. It is not normal.


Some of the crew of HMAS Arunta have come to Alice Springs/Mparntwe for the special ceremony – a long way from the ocean in any direction for the navy – in recognition of the ship’s name. Arunta is an earlier spelling of Aranda which has in turn given way (for some) to Arrernte.

I am not sure what the crew of HMAS Warramunga are doing. Warumungu people live in the Tennant Creek area 500km up the Stuart Highway from Alice Springs.

Both Arunta/Arrernte and Warramunga/Warumungu people were made world famous by the writings of early anthropologists such as Spencer, Gillen and (in German) Carl Strehlow at the start of the 20th century. Spencer and Gillen conducted fieldwork at the Alice Springs and Tennant Creek Telegraph Station in 1901 – the same year the Commonwealth of Australia came into existence.

Those hard-working ethnographers, mentored by senior Arrernte and Warumungu lawmen, documented a great deal of the sacred lives of First Peoples in Central Australia. But the great importance of their work – as a means of learning how to better relate between two peoples – has been neglected by non-indigenous Australian decision-makers and everyday people for over a century. Ditto the work of pioneer women ethnographers such as Daisy Bates (in W.A.) and Olive Pink.

There is still only one system of law in the Anglo- Australian system of governance – and that is law based on what is at home in Westminster on the other side of the planet. Virtually no non-indigenous Australian knows anything of the original languages of this country, let alone has a real understanding of the cultures of First Peoples.


If the events of April 1915 marked the birth of a much larger sense of ‘nationhood’ then I argue that – with the passing of 100 years – it is now time for that new form of life to move away from its long adolescence and to grow into some real maturity.

First Peoples here remain captives of a one-sided modern nation-state. Two-laws is not allowed. We still do not recognise the sacredness of the original life in this country. We need to learn to do exactly that. It is not a divisive either/or situation. We need a healing both-and approach.

While (like Sam Neil!) I am opposed to nationalism I firmly believe that the best way to gain respect for this countries First Peoples and their Ways is to respect what is held sacred by those who, still, are unaware of this country’s original living cultures. Hence respect for those whose lives were sacrificed defending country (even if it was part of a curious form of European madness).

But after the parade is over, another real challenge presents itself. That challenge is to bring this country to a new stage of maturity.

As part of the ANZAC centenary ceremony, local people have handcrafted a large number of red poppies which have been incorporated into a large sign “Lest we forget”.

The many hand-made poppies on the northern side of ANZAC Hill, which make up the large LEST WE FORGET display, can be seen as symbolic of the split blood given in sacrifice. The poppy is not native to this area and I always associate it with Europe (the fields of Flanders?).

Picture of some of the Alice Springs hand-made poppies on the L of Lest We Forget


I was struck when walking up the southern side of the same hill by the extent of small Eremophila bushes – forms of native fuchsias. Eremophila means ‘desert loving’ – they sure survive in hard places. I think the plants I saw on ANZAC Hill may have been the Rock fuchsia, Eremophila freelingii.

Picture – the small shrubs are (I think) Arrethe – Eremophila freelingii

Nearly all Eremophila – which are found only in Australia (with one introduced in New Zealand/Aotearoa?) – seem to be associated with healing characteristics.

One of the species of Eremophila (longifolia) has been said to be one of the most importance – sacred – plants for Arrernte and other First Peoples in the Centre. Peter Latz records that E longifilia is called utnerrenge in Eastern Arrernte and is also called “Emu Bush”.

Why utnerrenge (aka Emu Bush) should be of such sacred importance is a mystery to me. You need to be initiated into First Peoples Ways (and look after your relatives) to learn more about such matters. It is easy to overlook these plants if your eye is not in the key of Eremophila shrubs, and you are looking instead for the more striking landmarks.

Earlier in the week I had been up the southern side of ANZAC Hill and not even seen this shrub. After a few days at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden I had learnt to pick it out. Retracing my steps up the hill today, I was amazed at the extent of this Rock Fuchsia bush. Sometimes it takes time for the scales to fall off our eyes and we begin to see our true surroundings for what they are. (Hey, those scrawny gnarled Corkwoods are sacred too!)

It struck me that the native fuchsias formed a ‘naturally occurring’ counterpoint to the display of artificial poppies on the other (northern) side of the hill. But it is not really ‘natural’ since everything in this country is related to the practices of First Peoples and their cosmic maintenance practices. In other words, both the poppy and Rock Fuchsia displays are cultural – the former of recent origin and the latter from time immemorial.

Peter Latz writes that the Rock Fuchsia – Eremophila freelingii – is called arrethe in Arrernte. In addition to its medicinal uses, “… the attractive flowers are sometimes placed in headbands for decorative purposes during ceremonies.”

The only country I would willingly risk my life for is one where those who wear arrethe in their headbands are included, as senior siblings, with proud poppy and rosemary wearers in ceremonies of floral displays of who we – collectively – are.

That is, a new two-sided and balanced sense of identity … presently in the process of becoming just as desert-loving plants flower after the long drought.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

Mparntwe/Alice Springs April 2015.


To obtain resources for learning Central Australian language check out the various Picture Dictionaries at www.iadpress.com (under Language) – they come with audio files in language located on the IAD website.


David Brooks for Mparntwe People “A town like Mparntwe – a guide to the Dreaming tracks and sites of Alice Springs” Jukurrpa books IAD Press Alice Springs

Peter Latz 1995 “Bushfires & Bushtucker – Aboriginal plant use in Central Australia” IAD Press Alice Springs

Google up Eremophila