The sacred and profane

By Chris Thomson | posted on December 1, 2017

ON HER 76th birthday, Carol Pettersen picks up a handful of sand and slowly releases it into the fresh water of the pristine lake where her mother was born 100 years ago.

Moments later, in the mid-distance, water swells then fizzes from the lake’s surface – like a dry-ice fountain of diamonds – and disappears as quickly as it rose.

Mrs Pettersen does not know quite what to make of it, but sees it as a sign.

“When we throw sand in, we wait for some message,” she explains.

“And what did we see out there?

“It could have been a spirit.”

She was raised in both the Noongar and Catholic traditions, and says one side of her is spiritual, the other logical.

“Spiritually, that was a sign that’s given me a blessing to be here and sit here,” she says.

“This place is significant to us Noongar people and to me particularly this is like heartland.”

“This is where my existence began because my mother was born here in 1917.”

Mrs Pettersen says Lake Mullocullup has always been a watering place for her people on their 300-plus kilometre trek from Albany to Esperance.

“This lake is not just a bit of water,” she stresses.

“It is a living, mythical creature that looks after the land and moisturises and provides food to all the environment around here.

“For water skiing to be here, not only is it disrespect but it could be like killing this creature.”

For 35 years, until the City of Albany stopped turning a blind eye, skiers skimmed across the lake’s surface, an act city officials this week acknowledged was illegal.

“For me to be able to sit here in reverence in this solitude and this beautiful environment and then suddenly be disturbed by the roar of a motor boat – how would you feel if I came roaring around your church on a motor bike?” Mrs Pettersen asks.

She says Noongar people have a “really good” relationship with modern-day property owners around Mullocullup, who have allowed Noongar people to visit to pay their reverence.

“In the surrounds, on the hill up there, there’s a men’s place, and over here, women’s birthing places were always near water because there was a spirit there,” she says.

She says Noongar people from many families were born at Mullocullup.

“They had to be dusted in a special wood ash, a fine ash like talcum, and I can proudly say I was dusted in that ash,” she adds.

“My mother’s birth blood is over there, and that is my DNA connection to the land.”

Mrs Pettersen, a onetime Albany city councillor, says local Noongars have long objected to the skiing, but their voice has never been heard.

“It’s never been taken seriously enough to consult the Noongar people,” she says before leaving the lake for a light picnic lunch down the road at Cheynes Beach.

Three days later, on Tuesday night at Albany’s council chambers, a motion put by Cr Paul Terry to suspend the city’s push to gazette Mullocullup for skiing is defeated eight councillors to five.

Crs Anthony Moir, Ray Hammond, Bill Hollingworth and Tracy Sleeman vote with Cr Terry.

Cr Hollingworth calls Mullocullup, which lies just a kilometre from the Southern Ocean, a “jewel in the crown of the South Coast”.

Cr Hammond says city councillors did not know what they needed to know in August when they supported the gazettal.

“It’s a mess,” he says of the limbo the city and Mrs Pettersen now find themselves in.

But Deputy Mayor Greg Stocks dubs Cr Terry’s motion “a recession motion in disguise”.

His colleague Rob Sutton adds there is “conjecture on who should be speaking for the Noongars on these things” before both men vote against the motion.

Mayor Dennis Wellington, his former personal assistant Rebecca Stephens, onetime mayor Alison Goode, Sandie Smith, John Shanhun, and Emma Doughty also vote against.

With a hand-picked committee of local Noongar people, the city will now commission consultation Cr Terry says will cost between $6000 and $7000 and be a “waste of time”.

“I say the consultation is a waste of time because on the petition submitted by Carol Pettersen exists six of the 10 members of the new proposed Noongar Consultative Committee, and there are two more signatures of people closely related to two other proposed members of that committee,” he submits.

“So we effectively have eight of the local Noongar families and their Elders already objecting to the gazettal of Lake Mullocullup.”

Mrs Pettersen, who’d earlier made a presentation to the councillors, and whose anti-gazettal petition re-ignited debate over the lake, departs the chambers immediately after the vote.

Outside, in the car park, she vows to fight on.

Image: Carol Pettersen at the lake. Photo: Chris Thomson