Treading Lightly: The Hidden Wisdom of the World's Oldest People

Treading Lightly: The Hidden Wisdom of the World's Oldest People

by Karl-Erik Sveiby, Tex Skuthorpe

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In this unique journey into traditional Aboriginal life and culture, a European business-management professor and an Aboriginal elder collaborate to create a powerful and original model that western societies can use to build environmentally sustainable organizations, communities, and ecologies based upon the same Aboriginal traditions that allowed the Aborigines to create sustainable societies in very fragile landscapes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781741148749
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 883,392
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Karl-Erik Sveiby is a professor of knowledge management at Hanken Business School–Finland. He is the author of 12 books, including Managing Knowhow and The New Organizational Wealth. Tex Skuthorpe is a Nhunggabarra man from Nhunggal country in northwestern New South Wales and is a custodian of traditional law and stories for his community.

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Treading Lightly

The Hidden Wisdom of the World's Oldest People

By Karl-Erik Sveiby, Tex Skuthorpe

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2006 Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74114-874-9


In the Beginning ...


Tex and I are standing at one of the sites of Creation. To me it does not look all that impressive.


The earth gave birth to a snake and it wriggled all over the earth making all the river beds as it went. The snake then asked for the frogs to be born. The frogs were born in sacks of water so the snake tickled them and made them laugh. They laughed so hard that the sacks burst, releasing the water and filling all the river beds. With the coming of water to the land, all the plants, trees, birds and animals were made.

A large mud flat expands in front of us. The mud is dry and hard and sun-cracked. A few small pools filled with fresh water are also visible. It is from them the Rainbow Serpent emerged when the earth gave birth to it.

It is a hot and dry day with a deep blue sky – one of many of these sorts of days in this part of Australia. A buubiyala tree stands in a clump of grass at one of the pools. Tex pulls down a branch with purple berries. They are ripening and their taste is sweet and cool. I venture closer to one of the pools of water, but I have to retreat rapidly when the mud beneath my feet unexpectedly turns soft and threatens to pull me down.

The small pools of water are not as innocent as they look. They are in fact the outlets of a deep underground lake, holes of water penetrating the mud. I suddenly understand why the mud flat is full of the whitened skeletal remains of wild goats. Seeking the precious water, they became stuck in the mud and perished.

The mud between the holes feels strangely wobbly under my feet. Tex jumps up and down and the water in the waterholes ripples. We are standing on water! He explains that the mud is at least five metres thick and covers an underground lake and a system of underground water channels, which are fed by the Culgoa River some 25 kilometres away.

The Rainbow Serpent is gone, but the frogs are still around everywhere in the Nhunggal country, although we cannot see them. They sit at least one metre under the surface in their water sacks and breathe through an air canal, waiting for the next flood.

Must be a lonely frog life these days, with laughs few and far between.


It is impossible to even attempt to understand Australian Aboriginal people without first appreciating the fundamental difference between Western and Aboriginal thought paradigms. Westerners, raised with a Judaeo-Christian worldview, think of themselves as separate from the natural world in which they live. Aboriginal people considered themselves integrated with and part of the natural world.

The Aboriginal belief system is often referred to as the 'Dreaming' or the 'Dreamtime'. These terms were coined either by Aborigines in an attempt to communicate the content of their spirituality to non-Aboriginal English-speaking people, or by white people in an attempt to find words that capture the Aboriginal worldview. The words are misleading and do not accurately describe the Aboriginal concepts. We will therefore throughout the book use the Nhunggabarra term Burruguu, from the Yuwaalaraay language, which means approximately 'time of creation'. The Burruguu was a creative era when the Ancestors travelled the universe. Their travels, their fights, adventures and hunting made imprints on the earth's topography and created the landscape. These ancestral beings possessed superhuman powers, but they were subject to human traits, pleasures, desires and vices; they fought, quarrelled and made mistakes. Aborigines always refer to them as their 'Ancestors'; they were not gods.

When the Ancestors had created the earth they returned to the Warrambul, the sky world, where they still live. The earth that the Nhunggabarra walked on was the mirror of the Warrambul, the explicit and tangible expression of their Ancestors' intangible world. Every form thus had both a tangible and an intangible expression. Plants, animals, the soil, even a piece of rock had an intangible counterpart in the sky, just like the people.

For the Nhunggabarra and other Aboriginal people in the northwestern part of New South Wales, the most powerful of the Burruguu Ancestors was Baayami. The early European settlers and missionaries, eager to find evidence of an Aboriginal 'religion', jumped to the erroneous conclusion that Baayami was the Aboriginal equivalent of the Christian God. The stories, when not distorted by European 'interpretations', however, show that this was not the case. For the Nhunggabarra, Baayami was the first initiated man made by the Creator and he was the 'law maker'. Before the Nhunggabarra people arrived on the scene, he laid out the customs and rules about social relationships to be followed by all the animals.

The Rainbow Serpent story also tells us that there was no difference between an Aboriginal person and an animal. Both were made of the same material as the earth. People and animals were equals, except that the Burruguu animals that had obeyed the law had been turned into people, while the animals that remained in their animal form were the ones that had broken the law.


In the Burruguu one of the laws that the animals learned was about certain places they could not go. Some of the animals broke the law by going to these places and they were turned into hills, mountains and valleys. These animals that broke the law became law totems. In Nhunggal country, the animal that broke the law was the long-neck turtle, and so he is the law totem for the Nhunggabarra people. The animals that did not break the law were turned into Aboriginal people. This is how Aboriginal people got all their different yurrti (totems) – from the animals who were rewarded and turned into people.

The Nhunggabarra did not worship any gods – not even nature spirits. Instead, for them every rock and every land form, every plant and every animal had its own consciousness, just as people did. Everything was 'alive'. Hence, every land formation and every creature on earth held hidden meanings. The Ancestors and the connection to the Burruguu were always present in the landscape for the Nhunggabarra people – thus their presence was felt concretely every day when the people walked their country. The Nhunggabarra were at any time able to connect to the spiritual world, either individually or collectively, through a whole range of means. The 'places they could not go' in the Rainbow Serpent story became the sacred sites, sites with a special spiritual connection. They could still be accessed, but only if the people performed the proper ceremonies to respect the law. The sacred sites were generally not visually distinguishable as particularly valuable or remarkable in the landscape.

Spiritual life was much more significant than material life for the Australian Aboriginal people. Instead of putting their surplus energy into squeezing more food out of the land, Aborigines expended it on intangibles: spiritual, intellectual and artistic activities. They carried their palaces on their backs, their cathedrals were built in their minds and they felt no need to glorify human heroes. It is in the mind and the creativity of the spirit – in the intangible rather than the tangible artefacts – that Aboriginal society stands out.

The Rainbow Serpent in the centre of the painting circles the springs, and the frogs sit in their sacks, waiting to be tickled. The animals and leaves symbolise the creation of life with the coming of water. The ant at the top of the painting and the circles of dots represent the birth of insects. The yellow dots among the leaves and frogs symbolise the mission to keep everything alive. The diamonds are one of Nhunggal country's traditional designs, being representative of the designs made by Baayami on the three sacred trees (see chapter two).

The sensual lifestyle of the Aborigines, their deeply spiritual communication with the earth and their Ancestors, and their unshakeable belief in ancestral laws created a psychology that was completely disinterested in acquiring and possessing material things. Aboriginal 'high-technology' was largely intellectual and intangible.


The Burruguu happened in what those in the West consider to be 'the past'. But for the Nhunggabarra there was no difference between past, present and future. The Burruguu still exists; it is the environment that the Aboriginal people lived in and still live in. Human life and being were as permanent, enduring and unchanging as the world itself. All things had always been the same. Thus people on earth did not create anything new. For the Nhunggabarra, the dynamics and changes that they experienced during their existence on earth were only illusions. An innovation was interpreted as merely the discovery of a feature that had always been there. New rituals and new songs – which, for Westerners, are the products of human creation – were for the Nhunggabarra clearer views of what had always been there.

As the Rainbow Serpent story tells, the Nhunggabarra believed that they had been created together with the landscape, so the past was not an issue. Their language did not even contain a word for time, nor did the Nhunggabarra people before European contact have a concept of time as a straight line. The present-day Western sense of time does not allow us to 'go back' to the past; we can only 'go forward' into the future. The Nhunggabarra and other Aboriginal people, on the other hand, conceived time not as a movement from past to future, but as a continuous channelling of consciousness from an intangible to a tangible and explicit expression. The rock in the landscape was the ongoing tangible expression of the rock's consciousness in the sky world, as it had been since the time of creation. It was the same with people, animals and vegetation. All were both in the sky world and here on earth simultaneously and they had always existed. In this sense the Burruguu was not in the past; it was always present, always 'here'. Western scholars have sometimes tried to understand the Aboriginal concept of time as past in present.

The Nhunggabarra also did not make a distinction between time and space in their language. The suffix – baa means both 'space of' and 'time of'. A combination of space and time baffles a person with a Western perspective. How could, for instance, the Nhunggabarra invite someone to a gathering to be held in the future if they did not have a concept of time? But they could. The Yolngu-speaking people of the Northern Territory, for example, tell time in terms of synchronicity: an event will happen when all or a sufficient number of conditions are met. Thus when a certain flower blooms in one place it is the appropriate time for harvesting in another; when the flowering of a certain tree occurs then yams are fully mature at a particular place.

It is likely that the Nhunggabarra used a similar method; for them it could have been the right time for the Big Buurra (initiation ceremony) when a certain fish appeared in the Narran River or had reached a minimum fat level.

The Nhunggabarra view of the universe is thus more sophisticated and advanced than it first appears, and is close to quantum physics and the theory of relativity. Time is regarded by quantum physicists as part of a space – time continuum, a concept that the West required an Einstein to discover (in 1905).


To the Nhunggabarra, the role of humanity was to maintain the world created in the Burruguu and to keep everybody and everything alive, including animals, vegetation, every feature of the earth, knowledge, even the Ancestors in the Warrambul (the Milky Way). The Nhunggabarra had to continue to tell the stories, and perform the dances and the ceremonies, or else the animals, the earth and the Ancestors would die. If they failed, say, to preserve the emu species on earth, the intangible spirit of the emu would also disappear from the spirit world and, because of the interconnectedness of everything, all the Aboriginal people of the emu totem on earth would also die. This enormous commitment put pressure on each individual and on the Nhunggabarra people as a whole.

Tex: I remember this old bloke in the 1960s, who continued to perform the dance of the giant emu, a species that has been extinct for 20,000 years. Every year he dressed up and painted himself and performed the dance. He had the role to perform the dance and he was convinced that in doing so, he kept the giant emu alive in the Warrambul.

The 'old bloke' showed what it was all about. When the Nhunggabarra performed the dances, sang the songs and told the stories it was not trivial entertainment; it was 'work' and a lifetime commitment. It was a mission.

The mission of the Nhunggabarra people was: to sustain the earth (the plants as well as the rocks and the soil), to keep the totems alive (the animals), and, last but not least, to 'sustain the mob' (to keep the Nhunggabarra people alive).

Sustaining the earth

The first European explorers in this region, Charles Sturt (in 1828–29) and Thomas Mitchell (in 1831 and 1835), travelled an Australian landscape untouched by white people. As it turned out they became the last white people to observe Aboriginal people living a traditional life in the region before diseases and settlers disrupted their societies. This makes their journals invaluable for us when we are trying to understand traditional Aboriginal Australia.

Thomas Mitchell, who passed through Nhunggal country in June 1846, admired the parklands and open woodlands:

I came to what seemed to me the finest region on earth: plains and downs of rich black mould, on which grew in profusion the panicum laevinode grass [wild millet grass], and which were finely interspersed with lines of wood which grew in the hollows, and marked the courses of streams; columns of smoke showed that the country was too good to be left uninhabited.

Neither the explorers, nor the early settlers who came after them, realised that much of the land and the vegetation they encountered was not natural, but altered by Aboriginal cultivation. The Australian landscape was to a large degree an Aboriginal artefact created by thousands of years of sustaining the earth.

The Aborigines used a wide range of tools for cultivation, both visible and invisible. The most visible and versatile tool in Aboriginal Australia was fire. The Nhunggabarra carried a burning fire stick with them everywhere on their walks, always ready to use. Cooking was only one application for fire. It deterred spirits from approaching camp at night. Smoke was the most popular insect repellent and hot ashes were applied to snake bites by some communities. Fire was used in the manufacture of spears. It provided illumination during moonless nights and a beacon was created by setting fire to a log. Fire was the primary source of warmth during cold nights and a tool in large-scale hunting, both to drive prey towards waiting hunters and for signalling. In some regions (not Nhunggal country) fire burned the dead.

The flat Nhunggal country was perfect for smoke signalling. Smoke signals acted like today's mobile phone: a group could, for instance, indicate the direction of their walk to other groups in the neighbourhood, and hunters could coordinate their actions when hunting over long distances; the explorers reported that everywhere they travelled they were followed or preceded by smoke signals.

Above all the Aboriginal people burned the land. Fire was their main tool for tending the land: 'fire-stick farming'. Depending on the season, the skies in Nhunggal country were full of smoke from the fires burning off the vegetation. 'All the country beyond the river was in flames ... the atmosphere had been so obscured by smoke, that I could never obtain a distinct view of the horizon', the explorer Thomas Mitchell noted in his journal on 23 December 1831.

The Nhunggabarra bushfires were nothing like the wild and uncontrollable fires that threaten human lives and property in the Australia of today. They were carefully managed to avoid killing the animals and the trees; the Aborigines knew how to manipulate fire frequency, intensity and timing to fit the ecosystem. Captain James Cook observed on his first trip to Australia that 'they produce fire with great facility and spread it in a wonderful manner'. Dame Mary Gilmore, the wellknown Australian labour rights activist and author, lived not far from Nhunggal country as a child in the 1860s. She described vividly in her memoirs her experience of how expertly the Aborigines handled fire where she grew up. When there was a bushfire in the outback the white settlers would yell out: 'Call in the blacks!' She saw whole stations in full panic when there was a fire; the white men lost their nerves and exhausted themselves in frantic efforts to quench a fire. But as soon as the Aborigines arrived on the scene they would control it with ease.


Excerpted from Treading Lightly by Karl-Erik Sveiby, Tex Skuthorpe. Copyright © 2006 Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Nhunggabarra Stories,
Paintings by Tex Skuthorpe,
Tex's Story,
1. In the Beginning ...,
2. The Country is a Story,
3. The Knowledge is in the Story,
4. Learning the Story: the Education System,
5. Knowledge Economy,
6. Leadership: All Have a Role,
7. The Fourth Level,
8. The Spirit of Death Arrives ...,
9. The Nhunggabarra "Recipe" for Sustainability,
10. Sustain Our World!,
Yuwaalayaay/Yuwaalaraay Glossary,
Further Reading and Research Notes,
References and Sources,

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