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Wrap up the wisdom
AustraliaQuest's last day. It's time for the team to pack its bikes, return to America and scatter to our far-flung homes like pool balls after the break. Done is the mad, rushed daily pursuit of content and the equally maddening nightly deadlines. Done too is our collective search for wisdom and the wonderful collaboration it creates. What's not finished, though, is what we do with that wisdom, how we make sense of it and apply it -- or ignore it -- in our lives.
AustraliaQuest, a journey of 35 days and 1,400 miles, sought big answers to difficult questions. In the weekly Make a Discovery, the world's top experts asked young people to help unravel scientific mysteries. Kids used their fresh insights, natural intuition, and budding research skills to create the seeds of knowledge.
One good example: Dr. Claire Smith, a Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian Institution, posed a question about why Australia's megafauna disappeared. Thousands of kids took on the challenge and she responded. "You put forward a lot of alternative explanations: disease, meteors, and natural disasters like volcanoes, tornadoes, floods ... I was beginning to forget the whole range of possible explanations and focus on the 'most likely' explanation. You guys have reminded me to think a little more widely on these issues. That is a big help with my work and I'll change what I am writing on this to deal with some of the issues you have raised."
We learned a lot about Aboriginal wisdom, despite the challenges posed by a brutal terrain and a secretive culture. In the end, we had to earn every piece of information that was shared with us. We did the research, observed and interviewed dozens of modern-day Aborigines -- from 12-year-old schoolgirls like Alisha, to traditional elders like Herman Malbunka -- and lived in the bush ourselves. Ultimately, big-hearted Aboriginal visionaries like Terry Coulthard and Reg Dodd, who joined our team, offered the greatest wealth of information.
Technology/Practical Knowledge: 60,000 years of observation has yielded many clever inventions. Several merit a modern-day look. Take the powerful adhesives Aboriginals made from the spinafex tree and the dozens of untested pharmaceutical compounds in their bush medicine. My favorite: The fluted ridges on boomerangs have recently been found to dramatically improve flight efficiency. Can the engineers at Boeing learn something from this?
The Environment: Aborigines regard land as a sacred responsibility, not a possession: You'd never see an Aboriginal person leveling a rainforest for trees, or ripping up the earth for gemstones. The simple message: Take what you need but don't abuse or overuse the land. Take care of it and it will take care of you.
Family: Aboriginals had complex relationships between different family members, which created a web of mutual responsibilities. As a kid your job was to help gather food and find firewood. Parents provided shelter and support, grandparents taught traditional knowledge, and your aunts and uncles disciplined you when you needed it. Cousins called each other brothers and sisters. Everyone took care of everyone else; no one fell through the cracks. The wisdom: Family comes first.
Society: Songlines are not only a means of navigation, they connect one community to the next. Different groups owned different parts of the song. If you wanted to travel for trade or ceremonies, you needed to collaborate with your neighbors. Songlines forged social bonds and forced Aborigines to focus on common ground, rather than differences.
So why pay attention to any of this?
Take the environment. The World Wildlife Funds estimates that atmospheric carbon dioxide will have doubled by 2100. World temperatures will continue to rise. According to Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg at the University of Sydney, this means that most of the world's reefs, including much of the Great Barrier Reef, will be gone in our lifetimes. At the other extreme, an estimated 70 percent of Arctic habitats will be lost too. Isn't it time we learned to tread more lightly on the Earth, as Aborigines have done for so long?
Look at this week's Time magazine (November 6, 2000). A cover story talks about how divorce and broken families damage kids more than previously thought. Another article highlights the escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians -- neighbors. Can Aboriginal attitudes toward family and living peacefully with our neighbors teach us any modern-day lessons here?
We live in an increasingly networked and fast-paced world. We tend to deal with complex problems with even more complex technology. Perhaps the Aboriginal way of living simply, forging connections with our neighbors and putting the family first is wisdom we shouldn't let slip away.
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