Review: Timmah Ballon Nic Low

Unfollow The Map

Looking up from my desk, I felt the rush of joy that mountain lovers feel in the presence of the real thing. I felt at home. There was Aoraki, the highest in Aotearoa New Zealand, cloaked in snow. There were his brothers, with their stone faces tattooed by glacial ice. But I was in Australia.

– Nic Low

We’ve been moving for a long time, but the land moves with you like memory. An Urban Indian belongs to the city and cities belong to the earth.

– Tommy Orange

I can’t write about nature. Writing about rural, regional and remote Country is as elusive as the photographs I occasionally take but immediately regret when the image materialises. A dreary flatness possesses the photos in my iPhone, reducing the sensory experience of being there to a static representation that vaguely suggests what the environment actually looked like. Like these photos, the gravity of what I felt or saw disappears in written language. I prefer to write about urbanised Country, those ambiguous territories where the markings of colonial architecture perpetuate western fantasies that First Nation Sovereignty has shifted and is something that can be ‘included’, ‘acknowledged’ or ‘celebrated’ but never ‘really’ present. In essence the carving of Country into these geographical categories is an illusion, an attempt to control where we belong. The division between rural, regional, remote and urban Country reinforces the colonial mapping of Australia, which diminishes the 350-plus languages, tribal and nation groups that share this continent. But within these colonial divisions I gravitate towards the urban. I can’t write about nature because I live in the city, and its exhaustive ugliness hasn’t ruined this place or our identity. As the Cheyenne and Arapaho novelist Tommy Orange expresses in There There:

We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better then we did any sacred mountain range – Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.

In the city, the Traditional Custodians’ Country remains. First Nations people belong to the city, which belongs to their Country and this continent. But we have also slipped from the map. The construction of nationhood cemented through property ownership and capitalism draws lines in the cadastral system defining and re-establishing land into parcels and boundaries without us. We are never quite tangible, visible or cultural enough to deserve our own lines, recognition or reparations. The map becomes a clever legislative trick so pervasive that its influence exists even within native title law, purposely difficult if not impossible for urban mob to successfully claim. And this protects capitalist interests: exorbitant property prices in urban areas that disproportionately benefit non-Indigenous people.

If the colonial mapping of Australia dilutes urban Country and urban Blak identity we write ourselves back in with urgent lustre. Our disappearance incites a new map-making pedagogy found in Blak literature. In books like Lisa Bellear’s Dreaming in Urban Areas, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, Samuel Wagan Watson’s Smoke Encrypted Whispers and many other First Nation texts new maps are drawn where the lines between places are about people rather than territory. For First Nations people, colonial delineations of place, space and culture are intentionally unsettling and further antagonized by our diasporic being which is weaponized against us to suggest that we are losing culture. Many of us live off Country, are born elsewhere but remain connected to home, culture and family. We cannot be mapped in the cadastral system but are surprisingly adept at using the maps that misrepresent us.

In Nic Low’s Uprising he uses these maps while creating his own, a tapestry of his overlapping Pākehā and Māori identities in order to understand the Aoraki Mountain of Aotearoa. A presence or being which first appears in Australia a vivid reminder, that place is not static or geographically containable. As Low writes, ‘in the old days people didn’t discover places. They created, became, are, the land.’ Nic Low is Ngāi Tahu through his mother’s lineage whose lands span that vast majority of Te Wai pounamu (the South Island) of Aotearoa. In Uprising, a lyrical documentation of walking through the Te Wai Pounamu Mountains, Low delicately meanders across multiple spaces which cannot be mapped in any obvious way, across culture, history, spirituality and colonization. Instead his journey resembles the identity of many mixed-race Indigenous peoples for whom there is no fixed pathway, beginning or end. His early understanding of Te Wai pounamu environments were informed by mountaineering learnt from his father’s English, Irish and Scottish heritage. He explains

I’m not Pākehā but Pākehā society formed me too – it’s common for anyone who’s Māori to hold overlapping identities, and walk in both worlds.

And consequently admits how:

I knew little about the deeper history of Ngāi Tahu, or how our ancestors really saw the land. I wasn’t the only one. Most Ngāi Tahu are now urban, and more than half live outside our tribal boundaries.

These dualities instil an understanding of place and environment that is as humble as it is expansive. For Low it is about learning and connecting to landscapes that are all-encompassing, that will engulf us in a moment of overconfidence refusing the respite or calm we want. These environments escape the map’s margins because they cannot be controlled but when listened to can guide and nourish.

The uncertainty that often follows mixed-race First Peoples is important. As Low writes, rather than finding closure, belonging or the western fantasy of ‘becoming one with nature’ he continues to embody a dual identity and walks in multiple worlds. This pulls us closer to an Indigenous conception of place, where individual control or power over nature is not possible or even desired. While Low proclaims that ‘this book is about walking as a form of knowing armed with Takerei’s maps’ he consciously avoids a gratifying climax where the non-Indigenous reader is vicariously connected to nature through Low’s re-establishment with his ancestral lineage. There are no breakthrough discoveries where a sudden re-alignment with Country transforms his being and a new affinity with nature emerges. And this is the point and power of Low’s story. As he realises by the books end:

The whole project had been harder than I imagined and I had only just begun. Bridging the gap between knowing and truly understanding would take the rest of my life.

While his love for Ngāi Tahu Country gently pulses he remains diasporic, connected to urban environments as his respect for Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (the southern Alps) grows. A relationship is formed which acknowledges that their difference in scale is infinite. The Kā Tiritiri o te Moana’s strength and enormity will swallow him whole. He explains:

I’d come to understand how rich travelling was when you gave up on wilderness and set out to explore the past, and to puzzle out the logics embedded in the landscape – even when the logics remained largely out of reach. Glimpses were enough.

If Low gives up on wilderness as a place where scaling ice capped mountains, camping in freezing conditions and traversing icy rivers is about gaining knowledge or progress he does so to reveal the colonial histories which relied on this sort of mythmaking to fortify their connection to the landscape. He embodies the Indigenous conception of time and space which Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith edified in Decolonising Methodologies. In it she writes:

For the indigenous world, Western conceptions of space, of arrangements and display, of the relationship between people and the landscape, of culture as an object of study, have meant that not only has the indigenous world been represented in particular ways back to the West, but the indigenous world view, the land and the people, have been radically transformed in the spatial image of the West. In other words, Indigenous space has been colonized. Land, for example, was viewed as something to be tamed and brought under control.

Low is acutely aware that Kā Tiritiri o te Moana cannot be controlled or ever tamed. In various moments he questions his presence in the landscape and whether his journey re-inscribes the spatial image of the West. He follows Pākehā maps and routes and hikes with Pākehā people at different points while consistently tracing his Ngāi Tahu culture and stories. His mixed race identity is omnipresent, a duality, which enables him to scrutinise and discredit the colonising damage of his Pākehā roots while conscious that his Ngāi Tahu ancestry is fragmentary. He writes ‘I did have a lot to learn.’ And later ‘should I be here at all? Some elders had said yes, some had said no. I wasn’t sure where I stood – or, rather where I should stand.’

The unsparing disorientation he experiences in his ancestral Country is significant. Low accepts uncertainty and refuses to narrate his experiences through frameworks where reaching icy summits is heroic and restorative. Instead his re-learning and engagement with Indigenous knowledge and spirituality is slow and cyclical. His journey follows the spatiality that Tuhwai Smith speaks of, where land is never fixed or neutral, refusing conquest for the pursuit of personal growth. Low’s experiences are fluid and complex, involving wrong turns and decisions to go back. When he uses maps he consciously rejects the explorative gestures marked on them so deeply that their colonial imposition is invisible to most. He walks inward instead, journeying towards a philosophical and spiritual space where Kā Tiritiri o te Moana’s power is reaffirmed because it refuses categorisation, refuses to be drawn on a map.

Tuhiwai Smith writes that:

Space is often viewed in Western thinking as being static or divorced from time. This view generates ways of making sense of the world as a ‘realm of stasis’, well-defined, fixed and without politics. This is particularly relevant in relation to colonialism. The establishment of military, missionary or trading stations, the building of roads, ports and bridges, the clearing of bush and the mining of minerals all involved processes of marking, defining and controlling space. There is a very specific spatial vocabulary of colonialism which can be assembled around three concepts: (1) the line, (2) the centre, and (3) the outside. The ‘line’ is important because it was used to map territory, to survey land, to establish boundaries and to mark the limits of colonial power. The ‘centre’ is important because orientation to the centre was an orientation to the system of power. The ‘outside’ is important because it positioned territory and people in an appositional relation to the colonial centre; for indigenous Australians to be in an ‘empty space’ was to ‘not exist’.

Tuhiwai Smith’s understanding of space is as clarifying as it is devastating. It underscores the bewilderment Low experiences in his Country where following the line is often necessary while equally damaging. As he nears the peak of Aoraki with Pākehā guides he refuses to follow the desired route to the top, undermining the logical endpoint, centre or milestone. His decision to stop is ridiculed by people who question his identity and challenge his cultural beliefs. A guide remarks ‘I had a guy up here last week who was Maori. He didn’t give a stuff. But he was only like one-sixty-fourth.’ But Low follows his own ancestral lines despite the group’s indifference:

My ancestors saw the mountain as the firstborn son of the sky, and the spiritual link between heaven and earth. We talked about the mountain being not just the symbol of the tribe, but one and the same – a huge metaphor that was also real – and how you don’t touch the sacred top of anyone’s head.

The conflicting line Low traverses in nature is something I also experience when I leave the city. An uneasy feeling that is heightened whenever I’ve tried to write or photograph nature. I’m never sure whether I should be there to begin with or where I stand. And if I manage to capture it am I replicating the ‘line’ used to map territory and affirm colonial control. In the natural environment or ‘outside’ space First Nations people don’t exist beyond flora and fauna. And when we are mapped, that activity then proliferates a certain type of identity through tourist brochures or as anthropological studies. Ironically the absence of civilization that the ‘outside’ or ‘empty space’ implied to the colonizer is false in the contemporary sphere. For many of us it is actually full. It is seething with colonial legends haunted by the legacy of those ‘brave men’ who tamed unruly landscapes as an act of settler belonging. Low recognises this and how these ghosts are vindicated through the stories of explorers like Whitcombe and Lauper who in failure and death symbolise a noble struggle over Māori land. A persistent misconception where their disappearance strengthens their legend or as Low describes ensures that it is ‘free to grow’.

The ‘outside’ is full of ghosts and Low avoids their eerie presence by following the path of his Ngāi Tahu ancestors who provided guidance to early explorers but were mostly ignored. But even this pathway is murky. As he retraces his ancestral steps the trails of settler explorers continue to reverberate in his imagination. He cannot escape their haunting; he falls back into the western ideologies, which spill across the landscape. When mistakes are made, weather misread and time disrespected he laments:

I thought about my desire to push on to the summit of Lauper Peak; my confidence that everything would go well. I realised that, like Whitcombe, my confidence was that of the novice, based on nothing at all.

There’s a terrible loneliness that comes from the colonial haunting of nature. As Low experiences, their ghosts can overpower decision-making, leading us back towards the path of competition and control. They also remind us of the family, culture, language and lore that we have lost. I can’t write about nature because I see too many ghosts. They lure me towards the map or a new point in the landscape because I don’t know enough about my own culture to know where to go. Low is aware of this and reveals his vulnerability with astounding honesty, just as other First Nation writers throw it back vengefully. For other Indigenous writers these ghosts are best avoided, rejecting nature as much as it is a part of who they are in eager anticipation for the freedom that comes from the city. The Kumeyaay Nation poet Tommy Pico writes in Nature Poem:

I can’t write a nature poem
bc it’s fodder for the noble savage
narrative. I wd slap a tree across the face,
I say to my audience

Pico’s joyously hysterical rejection of nature breaks stereotypes that position First Peoples as innately connected to natural environments but stripped of Sovereignty in urban settings. Instead he reclaims his urban agency, which is erudite and culturally active revealing his affinity for the city that was designed to erase him. His position is powerful but like Low he also struggles with a longing to reconnect with nature even if his identity is firmly established in the city. He has lost something and it is unclear whether it will return and if he even wants it back. He writes:

What if I really do feel connected to the land?

What if the mountains around the valley where I was born

What if I see them like faces when I close my eyes

What if I said hi to them in the mornings and now all their calls go to voicemail

Like Pico and Low I feel the oppositional pull between connection to the land and an identity wrapped within cities. Equally aware of the perplexing dualism of my mixed-race identity that constantly seems to belong and un-belong everywhere. These anxieties are felt spatially as we move across the line, the centre and the outside of the map. Occasionally feeling comfort or asserting agency in one space as our Sovereignty disavows itself in another. On a recent road trip I left the city, the urban centre, which I both despise and cling to addictively. I felt free, open to new experiences and connectedness while equally petrified of its absence, afraid of getting lost.

A four-day hike through Kooramandangie (Carnarvon Gorge) on Bidjara and Garingbal Country or outback Queensland elicited vast sensations in a space as serene and beguiling as it was overwhelming and out of reach. Unlike Low I had no ancestral connection to this Country and entered the stirring surrounds encased by large cliffs with reverence and trepidation. A responsibility and dread that would increase as I learnt about the landscape’s fragility to the flow of tourism that flocked to surrounding caravan parks that were booked out months in advance. The influx of tourists triggered a mouse plague, which flared in the evenings as rodents crept over BBQs and picnic tables while campers ate in frustration.

The maps that outlined multiple trails throughout the gorge included Bidjara and Garingbal knowledge and culture. They marked locations of cultural significance, which were described as galleries or rock art. But the wording felt abrasive, reducing complex knowledge systems into palatable experiences for tourist consumption. As I later learnt in an interview with Bidjara and Garingbal artist Dale Harding the area that was labelled rock art and galleries was actually a ‘whole network: it is a cathedral or university or a hospital.’ He continued to explain how the area’s vulnerability to fire and increased tourism threatened the intrinsic value and livelihood of people and place. He stated that:

I personally inherit an ongoing culture, a cultural continuum which means that it’s the foundation and the basis of what I identify as and who my family and community connect back to. But also living contemporaneously it is the example of what I can do and who I can be now.

In reflection I felt as if I had been trespassing, just like the multitude of other tourists who followed the map, which condensed thousands of years of knowledge, a cathedral or university into rock art for the consumptive explorer/tourist/settler gaze. A gaze that misrepresented culture and threatened its continuum if we couldn’t control our desire to be there and look.

As I walked through Kooramandangie intoxicated by splendour that was impossible to capture, I was drawn into something addictive, desperate to follow the river streams and intricate crevices in cliffs that weren’t on the tourist map. I wanted to enter the small canyons unsure where they led. I noticed a cave above one of the rivers, which was easily accessible and found a large fire pit and rocks that had been assembled as if people were living there. There were cigarette butts and other bits of rubbish, which were as foul as the mice that scattered through overcrowded caravan parks at dinnertime. This place was special in ways that exceeded us and I started to wonder how to love a place that also needed to be left alone.

Other hikers we passed marvelled at the great Gorge, impressed by the water systems where platypus thrived, occasionally swimming along the surface though notoriously shy of humans. Overhearing their conversations the hikers imagined that the area had once provided great sustenance and protection for Aboriginal people. Unlike the map that I critiqued they appeared to be following an entirely different one. They were re-tracing the tracks of the nineteenth-century explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had ‘discovered’ the area. I was over-familiar with Burke and Wills but this new name unnerved me. It was a reminder of how much intrusion this continent experienced and the peculiar way it was mythologized hundreds of years later, celebrated as a tourist spectacle alongside the rock art. Leichhardt haunted me as Low was by Whitecombe and Lauper. Men who believed that they could control the ‘outside’. Spaces they viewed as empty because the traditional custodians weren’t people but objects to be conquered and consumed.

Ludwig Leichhardt vanished in 1848, last seen on Jagera, Giabal and Jarowair Country, Darling Downs. His disappearance festered in the settler imagination with theories as wide ranging as murder, mutiny, starvation, a shark attack off the Gulf of Carpentaria and stories that he lived his last days in the desert alongside mob. Travelling through central Queensland grey nomads enthusiastically followed his trail as if it confirmed their own belonging. An explorer haunted the landscape and his ghost was a symbol of colonial prosperity and others’ loss. In failure and in death Leichhardt’s actions stratified a national identity, which valorises invasion and overlooks the destruction of Bidjara and Garingbal Country. In his review of Ludwig Leichhardt’s Ghosts: The Strange Career of a Traveling Myth Jonathan Dunk articulated:

This fantasy of belonging is a motif in a number of archetypic explorer narratives. The explorer’s heroic death in conflict, either with Indigenous people or the hostile landscape, transforms him into a sacrificial Aeneas whose death atones for colonial transgression and contributes to an authentic sense of settler dwelling. In the case of vanished explorers, this heroic motif sometimes joins that of the ‘Wild White Man’: a nativisation fetish simultaneously romanticised as a form of belonging.

The ghost of Leichhardt had etched itself into the environment, fuelling the fantasy of belonging that excited the tourists we passed. At times these ghosts materialised with a chilling effect. Throughout the Bidjara and Garingbal cathedrals the names of early settlers and explorers appeared within the rock itself. Carelessly engraved amongst the stencilled handprints and fertility calendars, which covered the cave walls. Names like E. Kennedy 1897 and others from the late nineteenth century all the way up to the 1950s vandalised cultural institutions that they had no claim to. Their endurance provided evidence that ghosts do exist. A small historical museum in the nearest town Rolleston stated that unfortunately the language and most of the mythology all disappeared with the invasion of the white people. Without doubt the invasion was painfully accurate but the rest was its own myth. Language and culture thrived even as early settlers wrote their names over it and continued to follow the explorers’ maps hundreds of years later.

My experience in Kooramandangie mirrored the puzzling mix of connection and distance that Low writes of where the desire to understand Country is disturbed by colonial ghosts. But if we remain lost, our inability to create new pathways is also about rejecting colonial map-making methodologies and control. Low’s uncertainty and cautious respect of Ngāi Tahu landscape reveals much more than the cultural knowledge he has lost. It urgently highlights the gross entitlement that Pākehā hold over space. While he walked lightly as a way of learning they possessed nature through their right to ownership, control and spiritual connection.

In a particularly uncomfortable conversation he meets Pākehā naturalist Kennedy Warne whose book Tūhoe: Portraits of a nation argues that:

Pākehā can leave this explorative model behind and become takata whenua (people of the land) through conversion with Māori and with place. The land will naturalise us if we will let it. The land will make us “native” – a nativeness of soul.

As they talk, Warne undermines his identity while simultaneously announcing his own pathway into Māori spirituality as if it was as simple as following a map. Low irritably expressed:

I realised that, right now, I didn’t want to be out here speculating how Māori spirituality could help Pākehā feel like they belonged. I wanted to be walking with Ngāi Tahu people who already belonged and to think about how more of the tribe could, too. And if I was honest, talk of spirituality made me uncomfortable because I was interested, but deeply wary of bullshit.

The bullshit Low laments continues to saturate mainstream discourse surrounding nature, wellness and contemporary spirituality while aggrandising warped stereotypes of where First Nations people belong. We are spiritually aligned with nature when useful but quickly severed from it if our mixed race identities, appearance or behaviours do not fit within white settler expectations. As Tommy Pico pushes throughout Nature Poem:

I can’t write a nature poem
bc I only fuck with the city

I can’t write about nature because I’m not sure if I belong there. My identity slipped off the map and every time I write myself back in, the image appears distorted. So I fuck with the city like so many others who find our place and connection in its ironies, its ugly beauty and terrifying pleasures whose architectures were as fundamental to our erasure as they are to restructuring our Sovereignty. I write about the city because it is easier to write about a place that we were expected to vanish from but actually thrived. Where traditional custodians continue to keep place in contemporaneous celebrations of culture that remain invisible but vital to us. A place where we are never really seen and feel like ghosts.

It is also exhilarating that Low writes about nature instead. But with honesty that many others can’t or won’t admit. He writes about it knowing that he remains indelibly connected to urban spaces that fortify colonial power but could never diminish our culture or humanity. He writes about it while moving between cities and across national borders because First Nations people are diasporic but that doesn’t mean we don’t belong. As Tommy Orange mourns and commemorates:

Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five hundred-year-old, genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours. We didn’t get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found one another

The Aoraki Mountain reappears in Australia. Low felt at home even though he’d lived between Melbourne and regional Victoria for many years. His connection to Ngāi Tahu continued to exist beyond the limits of geography. He wasn’t absorbed by the hedonistic rhythms of cities but discovers his own pattern in the malaise. Low finds people and connections in the sprawl of tall buildings and ‘helped set up a Ngāi Tahu taurahere (expat) group to run language and culture workshops for 650 relations in Melbourne’, he affectionately explains. His land moves with him held through cultural memories that will never be contained nor erased by a map.

Works Cited

Jonathan Dunk, Spectres of Settlement, Sydney Review of Books, 2021.

Dale Harding, Indigenous community reeling from destruction of ancient rock art in fire, ABC Drive 2019.

Tommy Orange, There There, 2018, Penguin Random House, UK.

Tommy Pico, Nature Poem, Tin House, 2017 .
Linda Tuwhai Smith, Conceptions of space in Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 1999, Zed Books.

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