Lessons From Hunky Uncky Bill

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Let me start by apologising to you, dear reader, for I fear this post will only be half as good as it may have been.  Reason for that later on.  It might also be twice as long as it may have been.  Reason for that – my ‘editor’ has swanned off on holiday for 2 months, thus leaving me no option but to write AND proof-read it myself.  The selfish git.

Anyhow, let’s get started.  A few weeks back I attended an SLG Day with my current employer.

“What’s an SLG Day?” I hear you ask.

SLG stands for ‘Senior Leadership Group’.  A chance for the makers and shakers of a business to come together; to review and discuss the past, the present and the future.

Look how far I’ve come, Mum and Dad!  I’m a fully paid up member of an SLG…. #madeit #myinvitationwaspossiblyamistake #epiclunchbuffetthough

As ‘SLGs’ go, this was one of the best I’ve been to.  Why?  In no small part it was thanks to an 80-year old aboriginal elder called ‘Uncle Bill’, and the ‘Welcome to Country’ talk he gave at the start of the day.

Stock Photo – I sadly lost the actual photo I took of Uncle Bill (and ALL of my photos) when Apple wiped my phone during a ‘routine’ battery change.   There’s a lesson there.  BACKUP.

Uncle Bill’s message was refreshingly frank, so beautifully delivered, and so absurdly lengthy (like this post will soon turn out to be), that five minutes into it I decided to start taking notes.  And here is why I had to start with an apology: I took the notes with me to Bali last week with the intention of writing them up whilst I was away.  I lost the notes.

“Woah.  Back up.  What are you on about, Chris?  What does ‘Welcome to Country’ mean?”

Most of those residing within Australia will have heard this term.  ‘Welcome to Country’ is a ritual, during which a recognised elder of the aboriginal clan native to the area, will conduct a short ceremony welcoming the guests to their land.  (There’s more info on this ritual in the footnotes).  

‘Welcome to Country’ speeches are typically delivered during the opening of Parliament, major public events, and major meetings for Government organisations.  The few that I have benefited from witnessing have been short in duration (~5 minutes), and not particularly memorable.

That is, until I heard Uncle Bill’s.  His was a blockbuster.  Some argue that these speeches are ‘tokenistic’, since the British stripped the Aboriginal clans of their lands two hundred years ago.  Bill’s did not feel like a token at all.

As I mentioned earlier, Uncle Bill was eighty years of age. He was as spritely as they come.  He spoke with an unerring speed and a thick accent, making it hard to understand what the hell he was saying at times.  A task made doubly hard by his knack for chucking the odd bit of aboriginal language in the middle of a sentence here and there.

At the very start of Uncle Bill’s speech, he asked the 200-strong crowd to find someone nearby who they didn’t know, and say hello.  Fairly standard stuff.  The crowd complied.  The energy in the room ratcheted up 10%.  I noticed ‘Big Willy’ stood watching the room whilst we ferreted about making small talk with strangers.  He had a massive grin on his weather-beaten face.  Like he knew something we didn’t know.

We returned to our seats, and he resumed.  Uncle Bill began to talk of times before Captain Cook arrived in Port Jackson and decided to drop anchor in what is now more often called Sydney Harbour.  This was a time when, according to Bill:

  • They lived semi-nomadic lives with their clan, on the land of their fathers (and their father’s father, and so on)
  • They drank clean water from the rivers
  • The men hunted plentiful bush turkeys and other wild game which roamed the land
  • The women swam in the seas and rivers, catching fish and lobsters by hand
  • They slept under dark skies, going to sleep as the milky way trundled past overhead
  • Families within the clan lived together and supported each other
  • Children were raised and taught the ancient and respected ways of life, by their parents and other clan members.  Duties were shared.  Raising the young was everyone’s job.
  • The elders were respected
  • Work was catching and foraging food, maintaining camp, making tools, and raising the next generation
  • Play was catching and foraging food, maintaining camp, making tools, and raising the next generation.  Plus a bit of artistry, dancing and singing thrown in for good measure.
  • Bill didn’t specify this one, I’m making an educated assumption: They had lots of time on their hands: no literature, no commute, no netflix, no fancy brunches, or fancier wine bars, no gyms, low stress.  I’m betting they were shagging like rabbits.

Personally I find it ironic that we call the aboriginal way of life primitive and uncivilised.  LOL.  We gave the aboriginal people Coca Cola, and bread and jam, alcohol, cigarettes, and Smallpox.  They gave us, NO.  We took their beautiful land in return.  And since then we’ve systematically set about stripping it of resources, polluting its waters and laying down tarmack.

Before Captain Cook arrived, the indigenous people were strong, healthy and happy.  Smallpox and other western diseases wiped out over 90% of the pre-European settlement Aboriginal population – thought to be circa 1 million. Now they have the worst health of any demographic in the nation.  Great work  Cook & Co.

Bill kept on with the story telling, and I wish I had those notes so I could recount some of his tales to you.  They built up to a crescendo of a message which boiled down to this.  We are forgetting our connection to the earth, to mother nature, and to each other.  That everything on this planet of ours is interconnected.  We are forgetting that we have a duty of care.

Bill’s speech was allotted ten minutes in the agenda for the day.  He went on for a full thirty.  It was bloody brilliant.  The organisers comically exchanged worried glances back and forth every few minutes.  At one point, during a particularly raucous moment, I even shouted out for him to keep going.  I knew that a talk from the company CEO was up next, he could have been Barack Obama for all I cared, in my mind there was no way he could trump the poignant, yet hilarious Uncle Bill.

At the end of his speech, Bill asked us to stand once more, embrace the people stood near to us, and tell them that we love them.  We followed his orders.  The energy in the room went through the roof, the chatter and laughter was deafening.  I found this surprisingly easy, told a few strangers that I loved them, no biggie.

It would be easy to read the bullet points I’ve listed above and romanticise that old way of life that Bill so eloquently described.  Call me romantic if you like, but that’s exactly what I do.

I love going camping with mates, cooking steaks and veggies on an open fire, telling stories and jokes, drinking a bottle of red and sleeping under the stars.  I like clean water, I like fresh, organic produce.  I like being surrounded by friends and family, more than I like being alone.  I’m fairly sure I’d adapt pretty darn quickly to a life with my clan, hunting wild game, building fires, teaching and playing with the children.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I also like sex, and would gladly be having more of it.  Especially under the stars.

The success of agriculture and modern civilisation means we now exchange much of our time for money.  Normally this means working for someone else, so that we can afford to buy food, clean water, shelter, and then a whole host of other stuff.  Stuff to distract ourselves from the fact that we’re living a life wildly different to the one that we’ve evolved over countless millennia to live.  All that good stuff used to be free.  Now we have to pay for it.  And we call this progress.  It is what it is, but personally I think we have progressed too much.

I read the below quote a few years back, in a book called ‘Against the Grain‘, written by a chap called Richard Manning.  It’s an excellent read if you’re interested in stuff like this.

If you would have a group of hunter-gatherers watch the behavior of people in our society, they would think we were crazy because of the way we behave… because we are.

And we have become crazy because we have lost that physical contact with what goes on around us. We are sensual beings.

We try to replace it a million different ways… but it’s a substitute for what was there all along.

He’s essentially saying the exact same thing as Uncle Bill was at the SLG.  We use our time to buy money, and we use that money to buy things and experiences.  Cars, toys, tech, clubs, drugs, trips, gigs, shoes, art, subscriptions, prescriptions, etc, etc, etc.  In more primitive times we did not have access to such frivolous purchases.  Were we less happy?  Were we fuck.

In my last post I talked of my trip to Bali, and how, despite the food poisoning, I had a marvelous old time.  In retrospect, what I enjoyed most about that holiday, was not the exotic location, the 5* accommodation, the lavish meals, the day trips, or the pool parties.  Don’t get me wrong, that stuff was all appreciated.  No, what I most enjoyed, was being surrounded by a large group of friends for the entire 7 days.  Never being alone, unless I wanted to be alone.

I’m realistic, this ‘hunter gatherer’ way of life has long gone.  I listened to an excellent podcast with Jeff Leach recently (link in footnotes).  He’s an incredible guy who runs the ‘American Gut Project’.  He has also spent many years studying the lives, and the intestinal microbial diversity of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania.  He estimates that it is only a few years, maybe a decade before their traditional way of life is gone too.  Many of the tribe members have mobile phones, they have started to trade with modern civilisation, they take tourists out hunting with them, and antibiotics have inevitably appeared as civilisation brings disease.

Hunter-gatherer tribes like the Hadza, who have avoided the trappings of modern life, have microbiomes that are CRAZY diverse.  What does this mean?  It means a shed load more species of bacteria inside their intestines.  Is that good?  Yes – it most certainly is. Science now tells us that diversity amongst your gut bacteria colonies is the key to good health, to good immunity – to happy bodies, and happy minds.  City-dwelling folk who rarely visit the wilderness and subsist on a poor diet will have much less variety than the Hadza.  Hence why autoimmune disease rates are shooting through the roof.  Messed up microbiome = messed up human.  I have learnt this first hand unfortunately.

Doom and gloom could easily be the order of the day, but it need not be.  There is a chance, through technology, that we will find a way to resolve this quandary.  Alternatively, Mother Nature may force us back to the ‘old ways’.   Action is starting to be seen on a micro level.  The surging popularity of local farmers markets is evidence of this.  Young people are eschewing corporate 9-5 jobs.  I believe people, dissatisfied with the status quo, and priced out of extortionate property markets, will start looking to invest in land with friends and family, re-creating mini-modern day clans.  Growing our own food, spending more time with our children, supporting each other, and the precious Earth, may become in vogue again.

The results are in, leading physically-disconnected, but digitally-connected, indoor lives does not result in optimum happiness and/or health.  Maybe it’s time to learn to love camping, get out in nature as much as you can, invite all your friends.  It’s scientifically proven to make you happier and healthier.  Grow some vegetables in your garden if you have one.  Ferment cabbage.  Buy organic.  Walk lots.  Unplug.

Fuck.  The more I write and think about this stuff, the more I turn into a hippy.

Who’s up for starting a commune?


Welcome to Country:  Prior to European settlement, each clan’s survival was dependent upon its understanding of food, water and other resources within its own ‘Country’ – a discrete area of land to which it had more or less exclusive claim. For this reason, traditional Aboriginal culture was highly territorial: visitors risked violent reprisal for crossing a tribal or clan boundary without permission.  Although there is no record of a welcome to country ceremony having existed in any traditional Aboriginal society, each group had mandatory protocols for seeking and granting permission to enter land. Wikipedia

Link to podcast on the Hadza microbiome: https://chrisryanphd.com/tangentially-speaking/2018/2/26/307-jeff-leach-microbiome-expert-anthropologist

1 comments on “Lessons From Hunky Uncky Bill”

  1. Fabulous! I’m in a train, going up to London to visit a friend, imerssed in 21st century life, and feel your words deeply. We have lost our way and our respect for the Earth, our home. Maybe commune is the way forward 😘


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