The Garden of Stones

The Gardens of Stones is a treasure of Lithgow, the city of Seven Valleys: Lithgow, Hartley, Kanimbla, Megalong, Tarana, Capertee, Wolgan.

With its sheer cliffs extending from Lithgow north to Capertee,  the Garden of Stones adjoins the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage area to the east, and lies just north of Lithgow, two hours west of Sydney. It has been in the making for 250 million years.

The Gardens of Stone National Park was created in 1994, protecting 11,780 hectares. Additionally, 3,600 hectares of the original proposal were added to nearby Wollemi National Park in late 1995 and a further 3,650 hectares of the Airly-Genowlan mesas were partially protected in 2011 as Mugii Murum-ban State Conservation Area Covering an area of 28322ha and home to incredible landscapes and ancient Aboriginal culture, fragile pagoda rock formations, rare and threatened plants and animals and sacred Aboriginal rock art and cave sites. The Gardens of Stone Conservation Area was created in May 2022 as a result of a strong campaign and representation to the NSW Government by members of the Gardens of Stone Alliance: the Colong Foundation, the Lithgow Environment Group and the Blue Mountains Conservation Society

Just Imagine—Possible Elements of the Festival

Destination Pagoda with its description of this grand new tourism attraction for Lithgow, the hub of the Seven Valleys, describes how the ancient ‘pagoda’ landscapes above Lithgow are found nowhere else in the world, with their spectacular rock pinnacles, gorges, cliffs, waterfalls, swamps, forests, Aboriginal heritage and rock art and many rare plants and animals. This area is but two hours across the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, home to a population of six million people who hunger for opportunities to escape the confines, noise and congestion of city life to reconnect with the healing power of the natural environment.

Imagine Lithgow celebrating the vision and ethos of the Symbiocene Era, characterised by human intelligence that replicates the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing life-reproducing forms and processes found in living systems—the full recyclability of all inputs and outputs, the elimination of toxic waste in all aspects of human enterprise, safe and socially-just renewable energy and full and harmonious integration of human industry and technology with physical and living systems at all scales.

The Garden of Stones Caring for Country Festival would include a series of linked events centred on Lithgow, and with the capacity for some of the events to tour nationally serving to promote the Garden of Stones as an eco-tourism destination reshaping the economy of Lithgow. This would also provide  an eco-arts educational opportunity to deepen our understanding of the meaning of ‘Caring for Country’ as we begin to embrace First Nations culture and its knowledge systems as the foundation of modern Australian cultural identity, and understand what it means to re-think our society and economy based on the ecological systems principles of the Symbiocene rather than the Anthropocene as the Earth’s new geological era.

1. Garden of Stones—Songs of the Earth Performance: Union Theatre

In the footsteps of the work of Bangarra Dance Theatre and the trans-Indigenous and intercultural performance work of Marrugeku, the Festival will include a newly commissioned original performance work of dance, music and song that tells the story of the Garden of Stones through the Voices of the Earth and all its life forms, from ancient times to the present. This work will be developed under the artistic direction of a leading performing arts director, with dramaturg guidance from Wiradjuri elders, environmentalists and coal industry historians. It will seek to include local dancers, writers and musicians in the development and performance of the work. It will cover the following ‘acts’, with the opening performance at the restored Union Theatre in Lithgow. With the opportunity to tour nationally and even internationally.

  • Ancient geological times of the mega fauna and ice age
  • Life with Wiradjuri cultural custodians
  • White settlement and the mining of coal
  • Environmental activism for protection and regeneration
  • Celebrating the new compact of humans and the natural world in the Symbiocene

2. Symposium of Dangerous Ideas and Poetry: WSU Transformation Hub

An opportunity for creative thought leadership interspersed with poetry slam performances to explore life in the Symbiocene

  • Ancient LAW and the sciences of complex systems
  • Re-designing industry for a circular economy
  • Learning and Education for the Symbiocene
  • Wellbeing in the Symbiocene—housing, food, spirit and intimacy

3. Exhibition of Botanical Earth Scrolls: Gang Gang Gallery

An exhibition of botanical earth scrolls and talks with artists such as Sharon Field and Freedom Wilson of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute’s Eco-Arts program working in the area of botanicals and Australian natives

4. Sculpture and Music: Lithgow State Mine Heritage Park and Henryk Topolnicki Sculpture Garden at Dargan

An exhibition of sculptures inspired by the Garden of Stones landscape and history of mining to be held at the Lithgow State Mine Heritage Park and Henryk Topolnicki Sculpture Garden at Dargan, combined with a live music concert at the Heritage Park

5. Main Street Illuminated

Main Street Lithgow enlivened with projection art, hanging lanterns and small curated food and music events at local venues

 6. Guided Tours of the Garden of Stones

A series of guided tours with local bush specialists such as Yuri Bolotin of the BigCi (Bilpin International Ground for Creative Initiatives), local Wiradjuri people, Dr Ian Baird an expert on Hanging Swamps and iconic Giant Dragon Fly, and guides with NSW National Parks.

7. Events Curated by One Mob (with Secret Creek Sanctuary, Australian Ecosystems Foundation)

An arts event designed and curated by Indigenous group, One Mob, involved in the Secret Creek Sanctuary

Caring for Country and the Symbiocene

Caring for Country

Caring for Country is an all embracing and multifaceted idea in Australia’s First Nations cultures across Australia, encoded in songlines and the ceremonial transmission of knowledge by cultural custodians, the Elders.  For the Dharug and Gundungurra people of the Blue Mountains where I live, Country is Ngurra, taking in everything within the physical, cultural and spiritual landscape—landforms, waters, air, trees, rocks, plants, animals, foods, medicines, minerals, stories and special places.  It includes cultural practice, kinship, knowledge, songs, stories and art, as well as spiritual ancestral beings and people: past, present and future (Blue Mountains City Council Statement of Recognition and Commitment).

Caring for Country is based on the ancestral LAW of total systems ecological awareness—of a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of the many layers of complex ecologies that describe life on Planet Earth. This knowledge comes from a living culture that dates back more than 65,000 years, back into the last ice age and times of the mega fauna that roamed Australia. Caring for Country involves the science of what we call ‘cultural burning’, of knowing how to use fire to manage the landscape to regenerate its fecundity. Of knowing how to read the land/seascape and all its creatures and life forms across the seasons as a text that is far richer and more complex than any written text devised from human language.

While some things about our Planet Earth remain in place such as cycles of day and night, and the time it takes for the Earth  to go around the sun, many other patterns and rhythms of our Earth phenology are undergoing major change due to global warming and environmental degradation. We are experiencing a major loss of biodiversity.  Some name it the 6th extinction event, so great is the loss since industrialisation intensified across the globe in the last 100 years.

The source of this change can be traced to the Western knowledge system, dating back to Plato in Greece, and reinforced in the story of Genesis V.1.26 in the Old Testament, which has encoded the profound separation between humans and all other life forms. This story of Earth’s creation shared by Christianity, Judaism and Islam says that God created man in his own image and gave him dominion over the Earth and all its creatures. So much so that when science discovered humans evolved from apes, it created a major crisis for human self perception as being the only life form that enjoyed God’s favour, that had a soul to be saved in heaven, and whose sins would be forgiven.

Alas, the ancient LAW of the Earth is less forgiving.  It does not dance to the vanities of the human mind and self regard.  Rather it dances to symbiotic complexities of Earth’s ecologies—a wondrous fractal pattern replicating across vast terrains.

Thus as humans sought to think of Earth and its creatures as a ‘resource’ to be extracted for human benefit, the unforeseen costs escalated, massively accelerating after the Industrial Revolution heralding the age of fossil fuel derived energy and design of new chemical combinations leading to pesticides, fertilizers and plastics.

A rapidly heating climate is putting things out of whack. Synchronicity and timing are all important and when, for example, the instinctual migration of mammals and birds tied to ‘locked in’ global rhythms and patterns fails to coincide (trophic mismatches) with the great warming-accelerated flourishing, flowering and fruiting of once reliable food supplies … death and extinction follow.  Plastics are choking our waterways and entering our bloodstream and chemicals and industrial farming are denuding the forests and our soils.

The Symbiocene—Glenn Albrecht

The scientific meaning of the word ‘symbiosis’ implies living together for mutual benefit and I wish to use this profoundly important concept as the basis for what I hope will be the next period of Earth history. As a core aspect of ecological and evolutionary thinking, symbiosis and its associated symbiogenesis, affirms the interconnectedness of life and all living things (Scofield and Margulis 2012).

No doubt, conflict between organisms exists, but an overall balance of interests (eco-homeostasis) is in the total interest of all life. In addition, ecology itself is a radical concept in that it requires of us all to live within the limits of nature and to live with all the other life forms that share this home we call the Earth.

The critical edge of ecology is due not so much to the power of human reason – a power which science hallowed during its most revolutionary periods – but to a still higher power, the sovereignty of nature … ecology clearly shows the totality of the natural world – nature viewed in all its aspects, cycles and interrelationships – cancels out human pretensions to mastery over the planet (Bookchin 1971:59)

As a scientific term, symbiosis has been used to give substance to the nature of the interactions between different organisms living in close physical association. For example, the relatively recent discovery of immense mutually beneficial associations of macrofungi with flowering plants in complex positive metabolic symbiotic relationship to each other in ecosystems all over the world has already overturned the dominance of the ‘Darwinian’ view of life as solely founded on competitive struggle between species (Scofield and Margulis 2012, Albrecht 2001). The symbiotic turn in thinking about the foundation of life has even overturned the idea of large organisms such as human beings as autonomous individuals. We are ‘holobionts’ or complex, collaborative organisms consisting of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that coordinate the task of living together and sharing a common life.

Let us now try to imagine The Symbiocene and the politics of how it might function. The new era will be characterised by human intelligence that replicates the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing life-reproducing forms and processes found in living systems. Given that we have evolved as a species within the pre-existing evolutionary matrix, such intelligence lies within us as latent potential. The elements include, full recyclability of all inputs and outputs, the elimination of toxic waste in all aspects of human enterprise, safe and socially-just renewable energy and full and harmonious integration of human industry and technology with physical and living systems at all scales.

The Voices of the Garden of Stones

All of the natural world is animated.  All has its own voice—the stones and soil, the trickling and running water and the creatures who live there, the birds and the air they travel with, the trees and their vast root structures, the plants and flowers and the insects that call them home, the world of reptiles who bask in the sun for their warmth, of furry animals who stir in the night, and the ecology of animals with their own hierarchy of survival and balance, and the unseen world of spiritual presences and forces.

These are the great chapters of the story of the Garden of Stones that will inform the performance work: Garden of Stones—Songs of the Earth

Ancient Times

We can understand and celebrate the Garden of Stones by listening to these voices—dating back 250 million years into ancient geological times, through the times of the Megafauna and ice ages before humans came along.

Wiradjrui Times

In this chapter the Earth tells the story of how the Wiradjuri with their sacred LAW of Caring for Country, lived with country and celebrated all its life forms. How they learned to burn the grasses to increase the fecundity of the ancient soils, how they learned to read the landscape as a sacred text. It tells of their sacred caves and rock art where they passed on the knowledge, generation to generation.

Beginnings of the Anthropocene

More recently the voices of the Garden of Stones take us to the times of the European settlers. Over the last two hundred years they brought their dreams of industrial civilisation and ever increasing material wealth and human convenience, as they harnessed the Earth’s resources—coal, gas, oil and used their sciences to craft new chemicals and synthetic materials such as plastic.  These new settlers found a way to tunnel into its deepest recesses to extract one of its earth treasures, the black coal that they could burn to provide heating, steam power and the magic of electricity to grow their industries, roads and cities. Labouring long and hard in tunnels deep into the Earth, they extracted the ‘black gold’ that led to the thermal Wallerawang and Point Piper Power Stations and the huge network of wires and poles that carried the precious electricity to the big cities on the coast.

The Garden of Stones voices also tell us how this mining of Earth’s treasures under its pagodas and hanging swamps has caused great cracks in its pagoda rock castles. This mining also drained the unique vegetation of the hanging swamps from which numerous small creeks and rivers flow.  Today, the people who so benefited from the ‘black gold’ of the Earth’s treasures, have also begun to realise that the other long term impact of burning coal, along with the use of other fossil fuels such as oil and gas, have changed the world’s climate, plunging us into a new human induced geological era, the Anthropocene, where global warming is changing the entire Earth’s climate system giving rise to catastrophic weather events, floods and raging bushfires, melting the glaciers and ice shelfs from the last ice age, and causing the ocean to rise, threatening to engulf many human island and coastal cultures.

The Arrival of New Protectors

Meanwhile another group of the new white settler community, the scientists and environmentalists, began to document how all this civilised search for wealth and productivity in the name of Progress and Prosperity, were causing untold damage to the Garden of Stones.  The long wall mining at Angus Place Mine under Newnes Plateau was causing great cracks in the stone pagodos.  Mining was drying out the precious hanging swamps, home to the Giant Dragon Fly, the source of the rivers of nearby valleys, and mining tailings were polluting the precious sacred waters of these rivers.  This chapter tells the story of how the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and the various National Parks and Conservation areas were created under the growing cry for nature conservation to match that of nature exploitation. These voices tell the story of how, twenty-five years ago, the Colo Conservation Committee discovered that a number of cliff collapses in the Gardens of Stone were associated with coal mining in the area. Spurred on by the threat of further damage, the committee hurried to complete and put forward its ‘Gardens of Stone’ Reserve proposal. After a decade of intense campaigning by NSW environmental groups.

Searching for the Symbiocene

Finally in this last chapter, the voices of the Garden of Stones, of its pagodas, its unique plant species, animals and birds, tell us of how the Wiradjuri custodians and the Protectors worked with government to create a new culture of symbiotic regeneration, transforming the idea of the Anthropocene, to the Symbiocene, whereby humans return to the ancient LAW of ecological symbiosis with the entire complex interconnections of the Earth ecosystems to herald a new ear. The voices of the Garden of Stones now tells us how we are protecting at least 16 threatened ecological communities, rare groupings of plants and animals, including elevated swamps, box gum woodlands, Wolgan snow gum and tablelands grassy forest. More than 80 rare and threatened species make their homes here, including koalas, spotted-tail quolls, regent honeyeaters and Blue Mountains water skinks.

If we visit the Garden of Stones and learn how to listen to its voices, we can hear the voices of the Earth, tracking from ancient geological time, through the ice ages and times of mega fauna, through the times it was home to the Wiradjuri people, and to more recent times, when the European settlers found a way to cross the rugged Blue Mountains Tableland and gain control of the grasslands of the western plains of New South Wales. Of how they established new laws that suppressed the ancient LAW of ecological balance given by the Ancestral Beings to the Wiradjuri people.

This is the new song of human wisdom and ingenuity, the era of the Symbiocene, as modern science and organisation embraces the ancient LAW of ecological systems and learns how to listen to the all the different voices of the Earth and all its manifold creatures—the language of rocks and rivers, of ocean currents and sea creatures, of insects and worms, of trees and fungi, of soaring birds and furry animals, of flowers with their life giving nectar, of secretive nocturnal animals, of snakes, spiders and goannas—of the wondrous woven tapestry of life on Planet Earth.