Spring has sprung down under. On Saturday, 1st September, Australia celebrated "National Wattle Day" – our national floral emblem. Occasional commentator on Catholica, Terry Fewtrell is President of the Wattle Day Association Inc. and sent us this commentary yesterday which reflects on why the wattle was chosen as our national floral emblem and what value it might have in helping forge a national vision for our future. Borrowing from the Australian painter, Sidney Nolan, Terry suggests we look at this flower "as a form of sacrament – a sign of something deeper about the land and its people."
Wattle as Sacrament
A reflection by Terry Fewtrell
Results at the Olympics and the Bledisloe Cup have offered little cause recently for national celebration. But while gold may have been in short supply, it is a different matter across our landscape at this time of the year.
Wattle time and National Wattle Day (1 September) bring gold in abundance. In fact they bring the green and gold, as this palette of our national colours, comes from the gold and green of Acacia pycnantha, the variety of wattle that is our official national floral emblem. This is highly appropriate as wattle has been a key part of our story as a land, a people and a nation. It has more to say about and to us than any other symbol.
Wattle and National Wattle Day are authentically Australian in ways that Australia Day is not. Wattle has much more to offer us than simply the colours we have come to love. As a remnant Gondwanaland species, wattle has been a resilient survivor and an elegant witness to the whole of the Australian story. Like none other it has grown and flourished in the Australian landscape for longer than that land has been a continental island. It speaks eloquently of us and our place. It teaches us that adaption, resilience and respect for the land are keys to surviving and thriving in this land.
Wattle offers both celebration and reflection. For an increasing number of Australians, National Wattle Day is re-emerging as an occasion that not just welcomes and unites all, but one that enables us to better ponder, understand and express who we are and how we have been fashioned by the land itself.
The many and varied uses of wattle...
Throughout our stories, wattle has been used for the most practical and the most noble of purposes. It has been a food source, hunting instrument and season marker for our indigenous peoples. In colonial times it was a source of cheap housing and an early industry through tanning. We honour our best with an Order of Australia, the centrepiece of which is the wattle blossom. It has become instinctive for us to look to wattle as a form of balm in times of national pain and tragedy.
But it is its role as a symbol and sign of identity that is the major contribution of this patient witness. Wattle is both secular and sacred in the Australian mind – and it is its sacred qualities that warrant our reflection. It could be argued that wattle is Australia's sacrament. In religious terms a sacrament is an outward sign of a special form of grace – the word itself derives from the sacred. In many ways wattle as sacrament is a call to us all to understand ourselves and our land.
For a nation increasingly familiar and respectful of 'sacred sites', it is not too much of a leap to borrow this further image from the sacred. Indeed almost 50 years ago Sydney Nolan reflected on his own paintings as a form of sacrament – a sign of something deeper about the land and its people.
At its essence wattle is more than a marker of identity. It calls us to plumb that deepness in a radical sense, to discover and express who we truly are. In secular terms it urges us to respond to Nietzsche's exhortation: 'become who you are'.
At a time in our history when there is growing frustration at the failure of national leaders of all colours, to speak meaningfully of identity or articulate a national vision, wattle can be a safe and objective emblem around which all can rally and draw inspiration. Perhaps the lack of a shared vision for the nation is due partly to the fact that as a community we have not had the courage to embark on a respectful conversation about who we really are and what we can and ought to achieve.
Invoking the spirit of the wattle, with its millennia of witness and experience of this land, should inspire us to share our thoughts and in the process build a common understanding of how our land has shaped and formed us. Only then can we truly sketch a shared vision for our future.
Exactly 100 years ago Prime Minister Andrew Fisher changed the Australian Coat of Arms to incorporate wattle. He did this to reflect the growing tide of enthusiasm for wattle as our national emblem, evident in the co-ordinated Wattle Day celebrations of 1910 and 1911. Fisher may have been Scottish by birth, but he was quick to recognise the importance to the young Australian nation, of symbols that come directly from the land.
We would be wise, a century later, to invoke that same wattle as a way of understanding who we really are and can be. The gold of the wattle springs from the land itself. It welcomes our spring and reminds us to discover again the gold that is within us. The power of the symbol is in its ordinariness and humility, a product of the earth that calls us to discover who we really are and to realise our potential.
So the wattle we see in full blaze in our landscape today is a sacrament that draws us to encounter. It is about sharing and affirmation. It is about courage. It is about learning the lessons of resilience and adaption that have come from living in and with this land – the shared experience of being Australian. It is about appreciating the fusion of people and land and being confident in who we are and how that land has shaped us.
Terry Fewtrell (submitted to Catholica on 02 Sep 2012)
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
What are your thoughts on this commentary?