Three bunyips

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with a bunyip was in a School Paper, the monthly supplement to the Victorian School Readers: Eighth Book (HJ Green, Government Printer, 1928) still current in Victorian primary schools in the 1950s and '60s. It was Andrew Lang's version from The Brown Fairy Book (Longman, Green and Co, 1904).

A group of young men go fishing, one of them catches a bunyip cub, and though its mother rises from her den ‘rage flashing from her horrible yellow eyes’, he insists upon taking his prize home. The mother bunyip follows hard on his heels, bringing with her all of the water in which she dwells. As the young man takes ‘his sweetheart’, to climb a tall tree and escape the catastrophe, he feels the water touching his feet and

when he looked down he saw that he had feet no longer, but bird’s claws. He looked at the girl he was clasping, and beheld a great black bird standing at his side; he turned to his friends, but a flock of great awkward flapping creatures stood in their place; he put up his hands to cover his face, but they were no more hands, only the ends of wings; and when he tried to speak, a noise such as he had never heard before seemed to come from his throat, which had suddenly become narrow and slender. Already the water had risen to his waist, and he found himself sitting easily upon it, while its surface reflected back the image of a black swan, one of many.

You could wonder if Grendel and his mother had somehow crept into the tale. And in view of the history of white treatment of black and half-caste children, that stolen child is disturbing.

There are details that seem a bit off key. The little bunyip is described as something between a seal, an unlikely reference for people living in the hot dry country described, and a calf, a clear anachronism. But then Lang was writing for European children, for whom descriptions like ‘between a seal and a calf’ make perfect sense, and it might be argued that as much attention be paid to the audience, as the race from which the story derives.

At the end of the story

the little Bunyip was carried home by its mother…people say that underneath the black waters of the pool she has a house filled with beautiful things, such as mortals who dwell on the earth have no idea of. Though how they know I cannot tell you, as nobody has ever seen it.

This is lovely. There is something very appealing in the suggestion that the story contains more mystery than Lang can tell, or know of, since it has not been seen. But that wonderful image of the house beneath black water filled with unknowably beautiful things, simply does not come from the world-view of nomadic hunter-gatherers.

‘No,’ says the librarian from the Koori Heritage Centre, ‘that’s not one of ours.  Well, that used to happen all the time. People would take something like the bunyip, which is from our culture, and add to it.’

How much does this matter? It is still a good story, well written.

The reader receives accurate information about Aboriginal way of life, the weaponry, spears and boomerangs, the division of labour between men, who hunt and fish, and women, who gather roots into baskets. 

It is a gesture of respect, only proper, for Lang to place this tale among the great body of world mythology. 

If he got the details wrong, altered or embellished the story, or merged details from some other culture, surely that was done in all innocence.

The piece begins, as others in the collection do, ‘Long, long ago, far, far away…’  This is like, ‘Once upon a time…’ It’s a signal to settle down, listen and enjoy. Aboriginal myths are ancient, so it is perfectly appropriate that Lang makes that clear.

INNOCENCE WAS THE dominant mood of all the pieces about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Victorian School Readers. And such innocence had a lot to do with that notion of ‘Long, long ago, far, far away…’.

There is Thomas Mitchell’s, ‘On Pyramid Hill, Victoria, 1836’.

As I stood, the first intruder in the sublime solitude of those verdant plains…this highly interesting region lay before me with all its features new and untouched as they fell from the hands of the Creator. Of this Eden it seemed like I was the only Adam…

Technically, this excerpt does not have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theme, since they are not mentioned, seen or heard, but that not seeing, hearing or mentioning was at the heart of race relations after European invasion. The terra is nullius. And Mitchell himself is innocent. He is harming no one, for there is no one to harm. His is the absolutely, perfectly pure innocence of Adam in Eden, before the Fall.

On the whole, the Victorian Readers did not ignore Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we heard quite a bit about them. But there was a very particular way that they were placed, at some infinitely large distance away from us. Not geographically, but in time.

In ‘The Old Inhabitants’, CEW Bean offered intriguing information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tools and weaponry, the boomerang and woomera. The piece is sparked off by the writer finding a selection of cutting and grinding stones while out walking somewhere in the inland. They are right there before him, at his feet, and reproduced in sketches for us to see and admire. This is how he places them in time.

Those stones spoke of an age before the dawn of history. On the spot we stood, we knew that some one – some one in the blank, utter darkness before Australian history began, some human belonging to a time of which no history will ever be written, nor yet even the bare outline of it ever be known – some woman in a long forgotten camp must have knelt there…

Such humans were right back there in the blameless and unreachable past, way out beyond the Romans and Greeks and Babylonians. Too far away for there to be any real moral link between our race and theirs. 

Donald MacDonald, in an excerpt from Gum boughs and Wattle Bloom, gathered on Australian hills and plains, describes western Victoria. ‘When the white man came here, aborigines wandered over these plains in thousands. Where are they today?’ 

But it’s a rhetorical question and he moves on.

Gum Boughs and Wattle Bloom was published by Cassell in 1887. The very first white settlement in Victoria was in 1834. A space of little over fifty years.

At primary school we were told how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were susceptible to European illnesses. Smallpox was not mentioned so much as the common cold, which we’d all had and did not seem too sinister, and who could blame us for coming here and sneezing?

There are theories that the Aboriginal communities of southern Australia were devastated by smallpox even before the arrival of European settlers. There are suggestions that the disease came all the way south from the Macassans and the Northern Territory, so not our fault at all.

And that’s doubtless part of the story. But along the south coast of MacDonald’s western plains are surf breaks, visited by my children. One of them is called ‘Massacres’.

‘So,’ I asked, perhaps tempted by the selective vision like that of MacDonald, ‘are there particularly dangerous waves there?’

‘No, Mum,’ my kids sighed at my stupidity. ‘There are really high cliffs…’

The men of the local tribe, perhaps because they were armed and fought back, were all shot dead in a nearby swampy area. It was the women and children who were just driven over those cliffs into the sea.

‘All this talk of Aboriginal massacres,’ my mother would say. ‘Such nonsense.’  She was cross, prepared to fight for our innocence. The unpleasantness of massacres was so uncalled for. ‘I never heard of anything like that happening.’

‘If Victorian Aboriginals weren’t killed,’ I asked, ‘where are they?’

My mother gazed at me, amazed that I could not see the simple answer. ‘They died of old age.’

FRANK DALBY DAVISON’S Children of the Dark People (Angus & Robertson, 1936) was a book I liked a great deal when I was a child. Consequently, I was very pleased to find a copy in a second-hand shop, hard cover, with the original Pixie O’Harris wood-cut illustrations. I was a little surprised that the book had not been reprinted, was not still easily available in children’s bookshops.

When I glanced through it at home, however, I became uneasy.

The story is about an Aboriginal boy and girl, Jackadgery and Nimmitybel, names which incorporated the comfortably familiar Jack and Bel. One day when they have gone a little further than they should in Jackadgery’s canoe, the tribe’s wicked witch doctor magically throws up a mountain range where there had once been a river, they are cut off from their families and must spend the rest of the book finding their way home.

Along the way, they are assisted by the spirits of the billabong and the plains and the caves and Grandfather Gumtree, all of whom clearly have more in common with naiads and dryads than anything from Aboriginal myth. 

There is a supreme spirit, Old Mr Bunyip. He cares for all creatures (yes, great and small), ‘the wild creatures of the bush and the beasts of the paddocks’. He is described, and depicted by Pixie O’Harris, as looking like an elder from the tribe. But he does have a long white beard and does stride about with a walking staff.

Like Bean, Davison conveys some information about Aboriginal weapons and tools and canoe making. He explains how their way of life allowed the land to regenerate, so that it could be handed on undamaged from one generation to another. In this time of impending environmental catastrophe, that is a striking achievement, and it is good to have it acknowledged with respect.

Davison makes no false claims to Aboriginality. His prologue, rather curiously headed ‘A Note for Guardians’, has an air of good-hearted openness and candour. 

The Spirit of the Brumbies, he admits, in ‘the primitive Australian scene has been pointed out to me as an anachronism… Youthful sticklers for the facts of natural history – if any such exist – may substitute emus for brumbies…

‘Though [the tale] embodies considerable bush and dark folk lore it makes no pretence to being Aboriginal legend – except’ (and this was the point where I first realised I might not read the book to my kids) ‘to the extent that a tale of lost children probably belongs to all races…’

Children of the Dark People was published in 1936. The phrase ‘the stolen generation’ was not coined until 1981.   

In the ’50s, when I read the book, no word was spoken out loud, by anyone I knew, about the widespread removal of children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent by church and state throughout much of the twentieth century.

But at Christmas an Anglican nun would come down from the mission in Alice Springs to visit her family in Eltham. She would bring with her a group of Aboriginal girls. Orphans, we were all told, a concept that fitted quite comfortably into my view of the world – just like Anne of Green Gables, the Little Match Girl and Oliver Twist. 

All the mothers in the Church got together and organised picnics and outings and games days.

A photograph of me and one of the kids from central Australia appeared in The Sun’s central pictorial pages. We were about the same height, both had pony-tails and, yes, my hair was very fair. We were supposed to be pulling together on a tug-of-war team, though that was a set-up, the other end of the rope being held by a photographer’s assistant.

The girls were all very quiet and obedient. I remember them dutifully catching a basketball and throwing it on again, as they had been told to do. Sometimes a glance would pass between them. As if they really did not get the point. Or as though there were some point we really weren’t getting.

Who knew what when? Who should have known what when?

In Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (Macmillan, 1995), Gitta Sereny argues that it is unimportant whether Speer had specifically received information about the planned extermination of the Jews. There were very obvious questions he chose not to ask. If you choose not to ask, you have a fair idea what the answer will be and know that it is something you do not wish to hear. You cannot look away from something without knowing it is there.

Children of the Dark People has an epilogue. 

Time rolled on… There came a day when, from the high ranges, [Mr Bunyip] saw for the first time, on the hunting-ground of a tribe, the square green patches of the white man’s crops, the slow sails of their gristing mills, and their cattle, sheep and horses grazing northward, southward and westward across the country. For a long while, without moving, he watched these things with deeply troubled eyes. Then, in his nobility, he took them also into his care.

When I read these words as a child, I found them deeply, deeply comforting. It had to be moral comfort, a desire for absolution.

When I came across this passage again as an adult, I knew decisively that I would not read the book to my children. 

The whole history that is not being squarely faced in these few lines, the history concealed in these lines, is terrible and important. 

Davison knew about it. Why else are Mr Bunyip’s eyes ‘troubled’? Why is it that we, the white race, can only be taken into care by a being of great ‘nobility’? As an educated adult, Davison may have known in some detail what he was not saying.

As a child, I did not know any details. But I knew, perhaps by the very silences and omissions, the things that were not looked upon, that there was something terribly wrong. Why else did I so deeply crave moral comfort?

A book from my children’s era is Jenny Wagner’s The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek (Longman Young Books, 1973). ‘Late one night, for no particular reason, something stirred in the black mud at the bottom of Berkeley’s Creek.’ This bunyip, drawn by Ron Brookes, is an endearing creature. Nearly spherical, he is just waiting for an arm to be put around him from one side or the other, he has no hard edges, no angular elbows with which to fend off any gesture of affection. His smile reveals large and slightly protruding teeth, which do not look sharp. His feet have long toes, rather than claws. In times of distress he clasps both his fingers and toes together.  He radiates harmlessness.

Once he’s got his eyes clear of mud, he asks the eternal question, ‘What am I?’ Followed by the anxious post-script, ‘Am I handsome?’

Will I do? Will I find acceptance? Love? Respect?

He has a series of encounters with other creatures, who all answer with differing versions of hostility to the Other.

The wallaby says bunyips look horrible with webbed feet and feathers, the emu says bunyips have fur and tails. ‘Horrible tails. And even more horrible fur.’ They are the mean kids from the playground.

But the character by whom the bunyip is completely undone is the man.  

‘The man was busy with his notebook and pencil and did not look up at the bunyip.’

The bunyip lies upon his couch, reminiscent of a psychiatrist’s room, while various bits of him – head, teeth, tail – are projected onto laboratory screens. 

The man is not cruelly critical of the bunyip’s appearance. He says simply,

‘Bunyips don’t look like anything.’
‘Like nothing?’ said the bunyip.
‘Like nothing at all,’ said the man.
‘Are you sure?’ said the bunyip.
‘Quite sure,’ said the man, and looked right through him. ‘Bunyips simply don’t exist.’

There are those vicious games kids will play where they refuse to speak to some designated victim. And there is the game where they will simply look through someone and refuse to acknowledge that the person exists.

‘I wonder where Meredith is. I’m sure she got onto the train, but she’s nowhere in the carriage.’ Another hour’s train trip, and no way to respond.

The bunyip, a gentle soul, does not try to argue with the man. 

‘What a pity,’ he says mildly on receiving the news of his non-existence. 

And in a state of entirely understandable devastation, he stumbles away with his little swag of possessions, including a small mirror, to go back alone to his billabong, where he can be as handsome as he likes. And where, ‘late at night, for no particular reason’ a female bunyip (you can tell by her eyelashes) emerges from the mud, and he can tell her what she is.

‘A bunyip. Just like me.’

After everything that he and the compassionate reader have been through, no other ending would do.

I am quite untroubled by this borrowing of the bunyip from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. 

For better or for worse, there is little attempt to be faithful to the original myth, where the creature was not endearing and did not wear a kind of furry trousers with frilly, scaly cuffs. 

It is such a good story. Universal themes. Such good morals. Do not fear or denigrate anyone simply because they may be different from you. Beware notebooks and computer screens and other cultural blinkers. Never look through people as if they did not exist, as if the wide land before you were quite empty for the taking.

Keep your eyes wide open. See for yourself.

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