We are walking along, sister, singing and making country with the point of our digging sticks. What is that sister? A mangrove shell. We must put it within the mouth of the mat and hide it, making it sacred. … Indeed, it is sacred to us. We cover it up within the mat, so no-one may see it; it is like a young sibling child.

Songs of the Djang’kawu[1]

Thus this environment, this community of the mangroves was laid out, structured, and made as one with human beings at the beginning of time by the Djang’kawu, the mothers of present-day Aboriginal people. Indeed, the Manyarrngu people, artist David Malangi’s family, are so called: the people from the manyarr (mangrove) trees.[2]Ironically, the European word mangrove has its roots in the Spanish word mangel (mangle plus grove), derived from the Haitian Arawak Indians (also Indigenous peoples) in the West Indies in the 1600s.[3]

Now a diminishing feature of the Australian coastline, the mangroves are those trees of the coastal, tropical and sub-tropical mudflats down to the low-water line. Though largely from northern localities including the Ramingining area, groves are also found in Paramatta, Lane Cove, the Hawkesbury and Georges River systems. They also exist on other stretches of coastline around the continent. The triffid-like trees have large masses of interlacing leg-like roots above ground which intercept mud and weeds and extend the shoreline into the sea. These places were largely seen by Europeans as an impediment to so-called “development”, unpleasant and dangerous places full of bighting insects and diseases.

For pantheistic Aboriginal people, this setting, though at times an uncomfortable place for living, described a rich garden of food and resources to sustain and enrich their lives; a garden where one pragmatically knew where each plant and animal was placed. This concept of garden is different to the European idea of a picturesque, often-anglicised image of the Australian landscape. The “gruesome” mud was home to a multitude of delicious shell-fish types from minute species of bivalves and oyster beds (the half-lozenge shapes in Yambal’s bark painting) to the large detectable mud crabs.

The mangled trees contain not only their fruits but the succulent teredo wood-eating worms called “milka” inside their trunks. Here the “twisted ribbon” pattern of their tunnels is the central feature in the bark painting of Johnny Ngarrarang. These worms were prized in other parts of the continent, including the Sydney region where to this day they are called “cobra” and thought of as a medicinal food. It is recorded that the place name Cabramatta really means “the creek where the mangrove worms are to be found.” The people of this area were named “Cah-brogal: The people who eat the worms.”[4]

For other Australians and supposedly sophisticated people in the world in general, the mangroves have undergone a major revision. The rise and fall of the tide creates an environment of continual change: daily, month by month, and year by year. Dead tree trunks washed down to the coast with the tide embed themselves in the mud and are marked by the tidal comings and goings. Tony Dhanyula’s striped poles are pure zen in his representation of this action. The environmental import of this movement and the transformation of matter and energy in the community is that mangroves use imported inorganic matter (minerals, soils etc.) and export organic matter as plant debris, which supports in-shore food chains. Estimates in NSW of commercial catches linked to estuarine mangrove food chains have been placed as high as seventy-five percent.[5]

The depiction of natural species appears quite often as a painting and drawing practice in art history. Indeed, the first European art workers in the colony were employed specifically for this purpose. Buchan and Parkinson worked with the botanist Joseph Banks, and the unidentified Port Jackson Painter for Governor Arthur Phillip. In the days before the camera, their renditions strove to be as anatomically correct as possible.

Aboriginal people’s representations of the natural order came out of a pre-camera period, but there is a difference in the eye (vision). There is an attempt to capture an essential action feature of the species involved. This feature is different to the concept of djukurr (fat),[6] which indicates the optimum time of harvest for plant, animal or fish. It is an image that has quite often been called an abstraction by untutored Europeans, but is really the feature that characterises a particular being and distinguishes it from another – be it a physical form, a footprint (a mark left behind), such as the stylised tracks of the baler shell, or a sense of taste, smell or touch. An intellectualised vision.


  1. ^ Song 129, Djanggawul, An Aboriginal Religious Cult of North-Eastern Arnhem Land, R.M. Berndt and C. Berndt, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1952. 
  2. ^ Manyarr: White Mangrove, sometimes called Grey Mangrove (Avencenia marina). Witchetty grubs and wild honey are found in this tree. The wood is good for cooking Nhumurray.
  3. ^ Reference: Oxford English Dictionary. 
  4. ^ D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol. 1, London, 1798; reprinted Sydney 1975, pp. 462–3.
  5. ^ R. Lear & T. Turner, Mangroves of Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1977.
  6. ^ Djukurr (fats), grease, lard, bone marrow, and by extension butter, liver of stingray, honey. From the Yolngu-Matha Dictionary by R. D. Zorc, School of Australian Linguistics, Darwin Institute of Technology, 1986.