Nidala Barker is a Djugun singer, songwriter based in the Northern Rivers of NSW and just released her beautiful (carbon neutral) EP Colours of My People last month. When she’s not making music, Nidala is a bush school teacher, gardener and sustainability writer.
We covered lots of ground in this insightful interview. Everything from the story behind her EP, fostering custodianship, taking a gentler approach to sustainability and embracing uncertainty of our planet.
Nidala has a uniquely kinder take on making sustainable changes and an optimistic yet grounded perspective that’s much needed in the world today and I’m so grateful to be able to share it with you through this series.
Thanks so much for catching up with me today Nidala. I’d love to start by asking if you can share a bit more about the story behind Colours of my People?
The story behind Colours of My People is that it’s really a love song for Aboriginality itself and I wanted to embody in a song, all the diversity that custodianship and Indigenous identity means. I think Aboriginal people in modern Australia feel like somehow they’re not quite aboriginal enough, whether it’s because of their skin colour of whether it’s because they don’t fit into the stereotype of the angry person who shouts from the rooftop and says ‘f’ the system and wears an Aboriginal flag T-shirt and to me that’s just colonialism embodied. It’s that we’ve ingrained this idea of what Aboriginality should be so much that we can’t even feel Aboriginal unless we suit the white gaze of what that means. Colours of My People was really my attempt at re-instilling that diversity of what it means to be Aboriginal.
"Reconciliation its most basic form, is just bringing together two parties that have been at war"
In terms of how I wanted to share it with the world, I really didn’t want it to just be only in terms of representation I also wanted it to be an embodiment of what my Aboriginality means to me and what my Aboriginality means to me is custodianship, is care for the earth, is care for community. Which is why I decided to make the EP carbon neutral to start off thanks to an amazing partnership with Spell and also to be 40% fundraising towards further capturing projects which include and another 20% towards community indigenous run projects. To use that to turn ideas into action cos that’s what my Aboriginality means to me.
Humans aren’t inherently a problem for the planet. We belong to this planet, we belong to the earth, we're part of this system. It’s just that we’ve forgotten what our role is within it
I read this beautiful quote in your bio on Triple J Unearthed that “your work dedicates itself to creating reconciliation… of ourselves with our emotions, of our bodies with our natural environments, and of Indigenous wisdom with innovative ideas.” I’d love to hear you elaborate this statement a bit and hear what reconciliation looks like to you.
Reconciliation its most basic form, is just bringing together two parties that have been at war and so much of what our world is going through is the opposite of that whether we’re looking at politics or the way we’re speaking to each other about Covid, it’s all about I am here and you are there. Reconciliation is about putting down the guards and just going “maybe we don’t need to be so far apart and maybe this polarisation doesn’t need to exist.” Reconciliation in Australia is often used to talk about Aboriginal Australia and non Indigenous Australia, which is true. But at the same time I think that polarization happens within our environment and within our own bodies.
The disconnection that we’re feeling towards our mental health and our emotions, towards our community, Indigenous culture and the planet are all the same thing. They’re all the same cause they’re all the same symptoms and I don’t think you can address one without addressing all of them and that’s what my work dedicates itself to doing, is going “how do we begin in a place that feels good, how do we build bridges out of joy, togetherness and celebration, out of these things that are so inherently natural to us?”
This has existed throughout centuries and countries, that’s what ceremony is — we light a candle to the moon because we celebrate it, we show up to our friends gig because we’re celebrating them, we give ourselves a cup of tea and an extra ten minutes in bed because we’re celebrating ourselves. How to we reinstill these practices of togetherness, of joy and start building those bridges again rather than being at war with them, of going like “I am not deserving of, it is me versus you, it is productivity versus feelings, it’s convenience over what’s right for the environment, it’s modern versus what is ancient,” and it’s like, they were never at war and that’s what reconciliation means to me.
The world's wealthiest 1% produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50% and the resulting climate change disproportionately affects BIPOC communities and on this, reporter Sarah Kempton wrote for the Washington Post, “You can’t build a just and equitable society on a planet that’s been destabilized by human activities. Nor can you stop the world from warming without the experience and the expertise of those most affected by it.” I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we take more climate action that integrates these social justice issues.
Well I think that they’re all the same thing. As I said, I don’t think you can address one without addressing the other, meaning that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a conscious act. Something as simple as reducing your plastic output, just by producing less plastic waste, means you’re reducing the amount of waste that’s being shipped from your country to a third world country, which reduces the amount of waste that ends up piled up around women of colour who are in situations where they have to deal with that recycling. So it’s like, the moment you do something positive for the environment, you automatically have a positive effect on everything else because all of this is expansive.
"What I see in people’s environmentalism is a sense of guilt and it’s the cause of a lot of eco-burnouts and I don’t think that that’s a good place to start."
Speaking on that quote you just said, I think we need to be careful around talking about human activity because I think so much of our talk around the environment and around conservation pins the human as the bad guy and humanity isn’t the problem, our lifestyle is. Humans aren’t inherently a problem for the planet. We belong to this planet, we belong to the earth, we're part of this system. It’s just that we’ve forgotten what our role is within it and our lifestyle has carried us far away from it. People aren’t the problem, humanity isn’t the problem. So I think we need to be careful, because what I see in people’s environmentalism is a sense of guilt and it’s the cause of a lot of eco-burnouts and I don’t think that that’s a good place to start. Shame is not a good place to start. Hope and understanding that you have a place in the world and your job is just to find where that is as a custodian for the earth for your community, body, and mental health. That you are the custodian and are the one that takes care, maintains and protects. Isn't that just a beautiful place to start? “That’s who I am” and I just need to shift my lifestyle to suit who I am.
And to also trust that there are solutions that are already in place. I think so much of this journey feels really scary and disempowering because it’s as if we’re starting and have to come up with all the solutions. And you’re like “how am I Nidala supposed to know what my carbon footprint is in this huge world and how do I fix the problems and deal with the war that’s happening over there.” But it’s not always up to you, tap into the solutions that already exist.
Something super simple that I’ve been reflecting on is ethical fashion. Fashion is a perfect example of this. Because if you choose what is right, like a brand that’s ethical — they’ve kinda already done a lot of that work for you. It takes knowing and doing some research, but again there’s incredible platforms like Good On You, Ethical Made Easy — you can literally download an app and type the name of a brand in and it’ll give you a rating on how that brand is doing. There’s all these solutions already in place and it’s so easy. Banks, to switch to your local bank. Locally we have Summerland, they’re a carbon neutral bank that funds absolutely no coal and it costs zero dollars to switch over. If you’re buying anything like a phone plan, we have an amazing local company called Belong, also carbon neutral. They do your wifi and your telephone for you and they’re significantly cheaper than the big guys. All it takes is just a little bit of looking around, but you can always guarantee that people who are making solutions for the environment are thinking about intersectionality and if they’re not, then gently call them out on it.
I think it’s really important to start to notice your effect on the world every day. Start to create a reciprocity between yourself and your environment. Every time you write a song, plant a tree or a flower seed. It’s as quick as that.
"The capacity of the top 1% has nothing to do with the capacity of the bottom 2%. It’s about finding what is your capacity and how do I do 100% of what I can do."
Was it expensive to offset carbon?
I did a lot of the carbon neutrality work myself, just because I have the qualifications for it. So all in all we decided to offset 4 tonnes of carbon which equates to about 200 trees, so that cost around $800 including all of the planting, staff and ongoing care.
Remember that every creation requires destruction of some kind. If we’re constantly getting lost and being like “I’m costing the environment this,” we’re just becoming in a frozen state. Though accuracy is important to a certain extent, carbon neutrality is a dodgy science at best. Two reasons, the first is it’s near impossible to get accurate data because it requires someone else to have done an accurate amount of their own carbon budgeting. The second is we have no idea what those parameters are. The example of my music, what do I include? Obviously there’s the straight forward ones, like driving to and from recording sessions, there’s the power used during the recording sessions. How much time did I spend on my computer? Do I include that? What about the email exchanges and interviews, the food I ate on the day. Do I include the guitar, the guitar leads and the cases?
Where does the line stop? I think the really important work to start doing is asking yourself, where are my parameters? Where do I stop? And go okay cool this is within my reach and outside of that I can’t affect and to start creating positive change where you’re at. The capacity of the top 1% has nothing to do with the capacity of the bottom 2%. It’s about finding what is your capacity and how do I do 100% of what I can do.
In one of your recent posts you write “I have a hopeful heart and an unyielding belief that our planet will thrive again, this doesn’t mean I cannot mourn for what has been lost.” How do you console yourself about what’s lost and what are some things that you’re currently feeling hopeful about?
I think what I do to console myself is hope. Is the acknowledgement of remembering what’s lost and not forgetting it. It’s a process of grief, thinking about a loved one that’s past. To honour them is to remember them and to speak about them. The thing I’m most hopeful about is probably my work with bush school. I do a lot of work with kids and when you’re working with kids in nature, there’s just not a single doubt that tomorrow is going to be an incredible place. That the world that they’re going to create is going to be so much better than even the world that we’re capable of creating.
I’d recommend for everyone to spend more time with kids because there’s nothing more hopeful than that. Watching the way they completely instinctively interact with their environment in a way that is respectful, kind and whole. I’m sure we’ve all, when we were little built fairy houses and gnome palaces. What that is, is worship of Country. You’re speaking to the trees, the water, you’re having direct conversation with whatever little ethereal beings you’re imagining around you. That’s the kind of creative solution-making that makes me really hopeful. And how many people are acknowledging how much more good comes out of functioning out of a place of trust and joy and hope rather than anger.
There’s a whole group of people worried enough about the climate that they’re unsure whether or not they should have kids. What would you say to them?
We plan for the worst, but why not plan for the best? How do we expect the world to get better if the vote that we’re giving is towards the darker side of doom and gloom? This conversation of kids is an interesting one. Cos we’re like “I don’t want to have kids because number one, I don’t know what kind of world they’re going to live in and number two, I don’t want them to be another weight on the planet.” But we’re not weights on the planet. We create beautiful solutions. The other day I helped a calf out of mud, they were stuck. The birds can’t do that, I did that. That has nothing to do with human impact, or well it does because the cow wasn’t supposed to be in Australia in the first place. But you know what I mean. I can do things as a human because we’re the best equipped to be the custodians.
Even that statement of “I don’t know what kind of world they’re going to have,” even if you just change your tone and say [enthusiastically] “I don’t know what kind of world they’re going to have.” You don’t know… and as soon as you instil hope instead of hopelessness, that same sentence takes on a completely different light. Because it is uncertain, but it’s not any more likely to be a bad ‘uncertain,’ than it is to be a good ‘uncertain.’
"The reason we don’t feel we can speak as custodians is because inherently, we don’t feel that we belong here. We don’t feel like our voice is worthy enough to speak on behalf of the planet."
I remember ages ago over coffee we were talking about how living sustainably can sometimes appear like a privilege for the wealthy. Does that feel true for you? On the same token, how do we take the shame out of not having the capacity to be 100% organic or be 100% plastic free?
Sustainability doesn’t have one exemplary way of being. There isn’t one solution, there are as many solutions as people alive. Finding your sustainability is about understanding your capacity. That’s it. My sustainability isn’t going to look like your sustainability, it's not going to look like Jeff Bezos’ sustainability and it’s not going to look the same as someone living in the slums in India. Sustainability is about finding solutions in your lifestyle to have the most positive effect possible on the planet. So if that’s the stance we’re taking, then of course it doesn’t have anything to do with privilege. It doesn’t have anything to do with privilege because sustainability is yours. It starts with you and your own capacity. Do people with more money have more capacity? Heck to the yes. Should they be doing significantly more? Heck to the yes. The shame is entirely misplaced, take that out. It’s about going “I have all this privilege lets do something with it.” It’s not about saying “you’re doing less than” it’s about saying “what is your 100% and how do you actually get accountable for doing that 100%” if you can’t eat organic, that’s cool, don’t eat organic.
Maybe it’s just about going to the shops and buying something that has a little bit less plastic in it. As you were saying in the beginning of the conversation, the carbon footprint of the rich is significantly bigger than the carbon footprint of the poor so they have a lot more legwork to do. But again, it all starts with capacity.
On another note, I was thinking about this the other day when I was in the op shop in Byron and I saw someone who was a vintage finder. That’s a solution that can look like a positive solution but what it’s actually doing is removing that option for low income people. Even though it can seem like a solution that’s eco friendly.
"Regardless of whether or not you think you belong to the environment is irrelevant because you just do. You breathe out carbon dioxide, to be absorbed by soil under your feet. You breathe in oxygen filled with particles from other people around you from the plants around you."
I love what you say about doing what you can based on your own capacity, but in some cases what we’re doing can be not actually as helpful as we intended and that woman probably just doesn’t even know. So I guess education is the answer to that.
Gentle conversation. This kind of goes back to what I was saying at the beginning. Solutions and sustainability, we can’t veto them unless we have that connection with community. In this situation of this lady who’s buying clothes to sell them vintage at four times the price sure she has great intentions and her lens is focused on sustainability and that’s awesome. But you can’t have that bridge of connection unless you have that bridge community and mental health. Because she might not know someone of very very low income who could have that conversation with her. Because there’s no bridge in community, because we only speak within our eco chambers to people who think like us. So that bridge of community is so essential in her solution-making to sustainability and within that she has to be in a solid enough space in her mental health to be able to accept that feedback. Which is why we need to have that bridge with our mental health. So this is a perfect example of why all three need to work together in order to have proper solutions. You can’t have proper sustainability without community and without mental health.
"What is within your capacity to say thank you to everything that has allowed you to be alive?"
It’s amazing that 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is on Indigenous land. I learned from reading authors like Kimmerer and Tyson Yunkaporta that seeing yourself ‘as nature’ rather than separate from it, makes us really good stewards of the land. What are some ways you feel we can deepen our sense of belonging to land?
Fostering custodianship, wowee. It’s my life’s work. For me, fostering custodianship really starts with reconciliation. Because if we can reconcile with the land itself, it’s about fostering a sense of belonging and I think that’s where the disconnection comes in. The reason we don’t feel we can speak as custodians is because inherently, we don’t feel that we belong here. We don’t feel like our voice is worthy enough to speak on behalf of the planet. That feeling is deeply rooted in our culture and our community. Going “I can’t possibly speak for all women.” Or not feeling you belong in your society and culture and your community. Where does that begin? That begins in the self. Of not feeling that our voice is worthy enough to be heard within our community, of not feeling like maybe we’re smart enough, or that we know enough of the facts.
All that doubt that starts in the self is replicated within our community, is what causes such a disconnect within our environment.
It’s all about having that capacity and kindness of going “I am an agent of change, I belong to this environment and the trees” and regardless of whether or not you think you belong to the environment is irrelevant because you just do. You breathe out carbon dioxide, to be absorbed by soil under your feet. You breathe in oxygen filled with particles from other people around you from the plants around you. Whether or not you want to your ears will be filled by the noises around you and the noises that you make will be received by that. Regardless of whether or not you think you belong, you do. It’s just about fostering that connection and once you have that feeling, the action that comes with that is entirely up to you. For you that involves starting your own business, it involved finding a whole where there was a need. For me, it was music, for a friend of mind who has her own veggie farm it involved growing veggies and feeding her worms. The action is very dependent on the individual, but the feeling is the same — regardless of whether you’re living in a skyrise in Sydney or the depths of the Amazon — that feeling of belonging.
I think that so much talk around all of this can be misconstrued as like “oh well, lucky for those guys that live rurally they can connect to the land but we’re in the city so we can’t.”
It’s kind of a cop out because like, you have a role to play within the world. Every single one of us was born here and given this incredible privilege to exist. We somehow made it through being infants and somehow provided for our needs over the last however many years we’ve lived. The community around you not only taught you how to speak, to listen, skills, and how to survive. You’ve been gifted all of this from your community, from the planet. Think of the sheer amount of plants that had to grow for you to be alive today. It’s an incredible privilege. You don’t get to tap out of it because it’s too difficult to live in a high rise apartment. You have been given gifts your entire life and it’s your job to step into your custodianship and to say thank you and that’s all it is. It’s literally just acknowledging it. Right, it’s like you go over to someone's house and maybe they’ve grown you this incredible food and cooked you this incredible dinner. You really shouldn’t just walk in and out without acknowledging them, without offering to do the dishes. What is something that you can do to say thank you? That’s your responsibility. There isn’t a passenger seat, you don’t just get to sit out because it’s uncomfortable. There isn’t one solution, you don’t have to go vegan, ride a bike everywhere, but what is within your capacity to say thank you to everything that has allowed you to be alive?
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