Experiencing Country as a Living Presence

Unlike the Western knowledge system, anchored in Cartesian dualism, First Nations knowledge systems are anchored in a worldview whereby all of nature is alive with spiritual agency, celebrated in the core idea of Country and the spiritual and cultural obligation to Care for Country, and have respect for its Cultural Custodians (Elders) and the Ancestral Beings who are ever-present, not bound by linear time.

Australia now loudly acknowledges that our cultural foundations rest with this 65,000+ plus living knowledge system, but the biggest challenge for non-Indigenous Australians is how to escape the ‘prison’ of our Western materialist worldview to truly relate to this very different way of thinking and experiencing reality.  Kindlehill School, through their Buran Nalgarra senior school curriculum are finding a way.

Buran Nalgarra

Buran Nalgarra, the name of Kindlehill’s Senior School program, is derived from Dharug Dalang. Buran is the Stringybark tree from which strands are rubbed by hand and twisted into a strong and hardy twine. Essentially Buran Nalgarra means, Strength and Learning Through Togetherness. Permission to use Buran Nalgarra was generously granted by Uncle Lex, who is a Dharug elder.

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of the world.” Paulo Freire

The program operates through the following core principles:

Transdisciplinary Topics

In transdisciplinary topics and themes, we connect where relevant, the fields of natural science, the arts, the humanities and technological design. The purpose is to seek ways to make our lives more environmentally sustainable, socially just, and resilient. This approach aligns with an ecological system where interconnection, diversity and reciprocity are dynamic integrals. It also seeks to include indigenous perspectives across all topics. It is envisaged that the classroom is not defined by its walls, and teachers are all around us.

“Deep learning is good for all, but it is especially powerful for those most alienated from the traditional schooling system. Resolving the equity-excellence miasma is at the heart of societal survival.” Michael Fullan

Problems That Matter – A Funds of Knowledge Approach to Learning

Ultimately, only life educates, and the deeper that life, the real world, burrows into the school, the more dynamic and the more robust will be the educational process. (Vygotsky, 1997)

Problems that Matter, with students as action researchers, is integrated into the core transdisciplinary units. In this approach, students draw on Funds of Knowledge, social and cultural capital in their own lives and in their communities, accessing diverse perspectives and ways of knowing/being in addressing concerns.

Students work collaboratively with school and community members, in identifying and understanding local and meaningful problems that matter or emergent themes. They work in a transdisciplinary and experiential way, developing skills in investigation, collaboration, critical thinking, communication and effecting change.

We then explicate a curriculum approach wherein students collaborate action-research – not just with other students but also diverse community actors, their teachers and academics on problems that matter for local-global futures (Brennan, Hayes and Zipin 2021)

To share their ongoing learning through Buran Nalgarra, Kindlehill have created a blog, reporting on their various initiatives. I am sharing their inspiring post from 28 March 2024.

Grandmother Walking

Grandmother Walking is about going out to experience Country as teacher. A time to slow down and listen, to return agency to place. In our first Senior School Wonder Journey, we are meeting the waters of Bulgamatta, known in English as the Grose River. This River, the Grandmother, has aged from expansive sea of youth, in her ageless life slowing down to a thin river nestled among sandstone gorges and canyons, and a broad wilderness of mountain forests. She has worked to shape country. Carved canyons, soaked into swamps, filled aquifers, lifted herself through the biotic pump of forest into cloud. She has whispered, let there be life in a million ways over a million years.

This has been our journey so far…


Yarramundi is the meeting place of rivers- Dyarubbin, Nepean, Grose. It is the meeting place of First People, coming together, gathering to make tools. It is a site of encounter- white man, black community, the beginning of a deeply scarred and wounded unsettling.

We arrived on a hot, dry summer afternoon. Piper remembers, “We walked down through the Casuarina trees, through the grass toward the river, it invites you to become a softer you. We got down to the water, to the shore. A huge log in the water, lots of rocks and little fishes swimming. I took images that showed how the rocks and logs were submerged making it like a sea. The water was so clear.

In this place, I could feel the spirits- the ancestors. They were happy, glad that people were coming to listen. They don’t want their story to die. We were there to hear it.

It felt welcoming. The pressure lifts off. You feel yourself flowing like the river!

Ticehurst Park:

Ticehurst Park is tucked behind suburbia, hemmed on one side by colour bond fences and houses, before flowing out into the beautiful bushlands of the Faulconbridge creek catchment. The rock has a Turtle feeling. There are many significant carvings in this place, particularly of the emu.

We sat, we listened. We could hear the traffic, so much rush! Slow down, be here, pay attention. We lingered and listened deeper. We listened to ancient sounds. Ancient language of wind- first breath, forest, insects, birds…

Piper noticed, “when we grounded in ourselves, we noticed more. We got up and we saw all the carvings that had hidden themselves.

We learnt that when you are grounded, you notice things. You pay attention- you see more!

Birdwood Gully:

One of the fingertips of the Grose, Springwood Creek. We saw lots of water- in all the green world, the waterfalls and pools, the drops of water from the cave creating little holes, caught on the fine threads of glow worms, in the carved caves, in the soft damp soil.

We thought about the Gurrangatch and Gurrungaddy story from the Dharug and Gundungurra Peoples. Could we see water as ancestor? As a creator? “Everything has a relationship back to water, water is everything, it is life. It comes from the start of life. You could be drinking water from the beginning of time!” said Rose. “It brought us life, so I suppose it is a parent to everything,” agreed Beau.

Katoomba Creek Bush Care Walk with Steve:

Piper: “We started on the road. Look at the house, then look down into the creek- follow this? What happens to the water? Hard surfaces speed it up, creating erosion. Bushcare is restoring land. Slowing water, putting natives back in. Because of human disruption over a long time the swamp had formed a channel, creating more speed and erosion. Bushcare was trying to mimic nature, widening the creek, putting rocks in to slow the flow of water and get it to spread and sink in.

We went back a few weeks later to join Bush Care. We weeded ivy, privet and holly, while chatting about how weeds simplify the environment, and how creating pockets of healthy bushland supports diverse birds. We found new clusters of orchids popping up, and chatted about their relationship to mycorrhizal fungi, a sign the soil is alive! We looked at the healthy bushland toward the creek, then the ivy-covered slope toward the road and could see how a small amount of dedicated people can make change. Piper reflected, “Everyone should do bush care. It helps you see in a new way. You see so much more of what is around you!

To complete our first term of Grandmother Walking, we have decided to go back to Yarramundi reserve. We have met this place. We feel excited to go back to somewhere familiar. The word familiar, shares roots with family and friend. This water, flowing from Bulgamatta, is becoming this: familiar, friend, part of our family.

We have discovered, that with Country as teacher we are more connected. We become more deeply related to the world. We are opening up our eyes in different ways. Piper: “Usually we are like, oh yeah, there’s nature, now we see so much is going on. The water, the organisms, the soil, the ancestors. We have to take better care of it.

Words  by Country, Piper, Rose, Beau and Sarah.

Featured image of the Grose River from Wikimedia Commons, produced by User “Rangasyd” and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.