Essay

Gifts across space and time

Journeying together in speak/listen trade

YAAMA MALIYAA! RESPECTS, friend, to the lands we are both on. I can hear birds talking to each other, and the newly arrived sunshine is beginning to bless the mornings. It is healthy and in full bloom. May your place continue to sing also, and we sustain its song. My regards to your grandmother, I hope she is well. My baagii is in Warrambool, my nanna and her sister both in heaven, but I know they are watching and are keen that I should make a good account of myself and, in turn, of them. Now, to business.

I am about to share with you. I will give you words that will combine to make stories that will lead to thoughts and hopefully feelings. You are showing me respect through your listening and attention. If you had called me to listen to your thoughts and ideas, I would, of course, show you the correct respect, deferring to your words and allowing them precedence in our meeting. Hopefully our dreamings will weave together again soon and I will get the chance to return the favour.

Let us call what we are about to do a speak/listen trade. Usually this type of trade sees words tumbling between people, some finding their way into dhuwi or spirit essence, others dissolving into burruguu. This way of talking is beautiful. Thoughts and fragments of information form and then melt away, others emerging to take their place. Our conversation becomes what is needed, rather than what is sought. When this happens, bodies and minds feel good because we are connecting. It means we are looking after each other and the words we exchange are caring for us too.

A speak/listen trade will always include things that have never been thought or said before as well as the word gifts I wish to give. When things like this appear in a trade, don’t worry – it doesn’t mean I am making things up or holding information back. I’m not ripping you off! It is a sign there is respect in the speak/listen relationship. It is proof the relationship is alive, growing, and we are learning together. This happens a lot when people meet to talk about culture and cultural things.

But writing changes this; it complicates things a little. Writing down our transaction freezes the words. They grow cold quickly because while the conversation lasts, the people who inspired it are missing, their energy is dispersed and the connection is paused. While our sharing is alive and energised, its written shadow chills and starts to die. This is what usually happens when you try to keep things forever. In our way, it is always best for people to be speaking directly with each other, connecting to each other and the earth beneath them. If they are only markings on paper, words become devoid of the mutual respect of a speak/listen trade.

Writing our trade down has consequences for me. It means now my grandchild and great-­great-­grandchild will inherit this conversation; they will become part of the exchange. But I want this speak/listen trade to be between us. I want to share these words with you so we can think important things now. So, there is a need to agree on one particular detail. It is important. In this speak/listen trade, I will give you ownership of the conversation, but I will be custodian of its words. This is a way of ensuring that context and meaning will remain within my community, my family and my country. It is also a good deal for you.

To those of you who are reading this in the future, know that this trade was done between two people at a moment now gone. What was real then may not be real now. Know that the context and the spirit in which these words were given belongs to a different time. Know, too, that the trade was done with a set of rules in place. If you need to reference our speak/listen trade, be mindful that the experience of the exchange is cared for by one and the content owned by another. Your space in our already lived relationship is to think about what our interaction has inspired for you. Forget us. We have moved onto other things by now and are busy at being wiser and more compassionate thanks to our exchange. Your role, future listener, in our speak/listen trade, is personal, silent, reflective. It’s hard these days to be this way, but I think it is a good way to be. You can get so much from approaching words, thoughts, ideas in this way. By allowing the context of giver, receiver, place and time to be outside yourself, you are free to think and to dream. So, let us caretake the words and conversation, but find a way to connect them to something deep within your own dreaming. That is a way you can be part of this trade. You see, we have left space for you even though you are not here yet.

So now, my friend, maliyaa ngay, let us look into the distance, towards the gentle twist of the still river bound by sturdy, dark mangroves. I want us to visualise this kind of country because it is where I sit and speak to you; it is the Dreaming buzzing around me now. In old days, the parks and playgrounds that now hug the river’s edge were swamp marshes, bursting with paperbark and rushes. Long before that time, the river was as commanding as the great Murray herself. Much wider and with sheer, towering cliffs. But now, let us enjoy what we see in our time, for it is truly a gift: children on bikes, cars rushing past, the occasional train ticking by. You will soon notice the sprouts of deep green, the browning sandstone and the brilliant white of the oysters that grow there, the native grasses have been cultivated here and are beginning to dazzle, adding the lightest touches of gold to the water’s edge. The river is without waves or disturbance, its only movement dictated by the waxing and waning of grandmother moon. Take your mind to the edge of the water, among mangrove and grass and sandstone and shell, and sit under the large casuarina that awaits you there. It is sure to house a noisy cockatoo at its top. They love swaying in its heights, nibbling and screeching and trying to be the boss of the place. That noisy old man can join us if he likes. Take your time. There is no rush. It’s beautiful here, all the things we can see and hear. They are dear to us in our lives now. Under this tree, you can become still and perhaps focus on a small patch of ground or bark or river shallow, and a world of busy, tiny creatures will fill your view. How wonderful to live in a place important to you and to me, to an ant and to a tree.

When you are comfortable and have found a groove for your body next to the river, close your eyes. Don’t worry about how silly this sounds. You don’t always need your eyes to see. From this moment, we are connected, by the river, to almost any place we wish to go. The river is now our highway – it is the way we will travel to our next trading destination. Whether you choose to swim or paddle or shoot through the water like a spider or sprite is up to you – no matter how fast or slow you choose to go, we will arrive together exactly at the moment we were meant to. So, from your place under the casuarina, let me take your hand as I walk with you into the water. There is no worry of glass or shells or roots waiting to hurt us at the bottom. Walking into the water, hand-in-hand, in the respect of a speak/listen trade, we are protected within creation. We are doing something good for us, but, most importantly, essential for country. Moving through the water together, the river levels will rise, escarpments will fall away then reappear, trees and grasses will change, and the water itself will transition from salt to sweet to fresh. We will navigate the rivers, creeks and estuaries through stretches of time, the great shifts taking place around us helping us arrive at our destination. As we near the place I wish to show you, the temperature of the water will rise – it will become warm, then hot. Its smell will change, and you will notice it is unlike any other water we have been. I love to float here. The minerals of the hot bore are good for your muscles, good for your mind. This will help to relax us from our long, liquid journey. My favourite thing to do in the world is float like a speck – with my body or in my mind – on the hot bore water of my homelands, a two-million-­year-­old soak at my back and the overflow of the infinite past above me. How small I feel! How alive and lucky and insignificant and loved.

One quick duck dive, then a thrust with our arms, and we will be pushed along by the hot underground waterway to our destination. This place is very special to me and I hope, by tapping into its magic, you can begin to feel some of its beauty also. We are at the edges of a series of inland lakes. The land here is flat. And it is incredibly red. Take a look around if you like. Enjoy this place. You might notice how the delicate young mulga trees fan out like a firework shooting out of the ground and into the sky. You may catch the budgerigars as they swarm in their hundreds across the open flat. How much better is it to see them flying and showing off and tittering and free. If you take your time you will also begin to see that this place is not only red dirt. It comprises minute pinpoints of colour, as if a great artist has added a fleck here and a dab there to her canvas, these fragments, tiny flowers and morsels of food, purple and yellow and cream and ruby, that speckle and dot the land. It is a long way from the parks and the playgrounds of the city, yet this bush canvas works in similar ways to the great billboards of our city homes.

 

I SUPPOSE YOU can already see how important this place is to me. I speak of it as if it is the most beautiful place in the world. I gush and gloat about its marvellousness, its significance and its strength. I feel so overwhelmed when I am here that I forget myself. In doing so, I have been improper. My apologies, friend. Let me feel my mistake and try to make amends. The shores of this lake, while special to me, are no more special than where you live, or where we have travelled from. All land is sacred, all land is special, whether it is a carpark or ceremony ground, playground or neglected lot. It is wrong of me to speak in boastful ways when introducing you to my country. It is not humble or respectful. It fails to consider the homelands of others. So, as you enjoy my ancestral home, please join with me in being mindful that everywhere is somebody’s special dreaming place. Each and every part of country, whether it is a great city, little town or expanse of pristine bush, is as magnificent and significant as another.

But here, on the shores of this lake, we are to harness the strength of our trade. This country has a history of facilitating exchange. Large gatherings between local and faraway tribes happened right where we are now. My people would provide food for the gathering, collecting freshwater mussels from the lake to share. Our midden lies to your right. It is the evidence of thousands of years of gathering and trading. Visitors would bring with them objects that could not be found in this area, maybe wood and shell and fibre and precious stone, to trade. Each tribe – we like to call them mobs – would have their own part of the lake system to camp on – and while they were here, treat as their own.

Marriages were also made here on the shores of the lake. Please don’t mistake this as a trading of women. Wirringaa are the bosses of the communities of this area. You may be familiar with the description of our community as matrilineal, but this does not adequately describe the importance or position women have in our world. If I tell you women hold the lore, then you will see how impossible it is for us to use women as a trade commodity. So, from food to materials to marriage, exchange runs through the veins of this place. After nights of story and dancing and song, when the days of feasting and sharing and trading were over, each group would return to their homelands with strong relationships and new goods to share among their own. We perfected large trade events such as this over time so that we came to call them ‘ceremonies’. We elevate the language and the way we interact with trade concepts because they are matters of life and death. Only by sharing do we sustain life. These ceremonies connect us to a network of people and places, ensuring we will never go hungry, never be in danger and never be friendless or unknown. Our ceremonies are investments in each other’s success. We are good at sharing and trading, at this way of being; our landscape means we need to be this way and we love to be this way with those around us.

I wanted to come here for many reasons. Firstly, and selfishly, because I always love a chance to travel to my home. I do it whenever I can. So why not now, with you? I know you will forgive me for being cheeky in this way. Secondly, here is the only appropriate place for me to talk on such things. From the lake’s edge I can speak about what I know and how it relates to the world. In another country it is proper that countrywomen owners speak about the things and places they know. On my ngurrambaa, I am able to lead discussions. Outside of it, I must be respectful and listen and observe, just as you are doing now. Thirdly, my wish was to bring you to this big trade place with its wide, red plains and unending sky so we can focus on a tiny, almost invisible spot in the land. It lies in the scrub ahead of us, at the far side of the big lake, a little way past its edge when full. Maybe it is a half day’s walk from here. The site of which I speak is only a hole, no more than the slightest depression in the ground. Yet it holds within it a universe of relationship.

The coolibah scrub is a favourite feature of my homelands. I am training myself to look through its detail, to allow its greens and greys and yellows and pinks to blur together to create a great oneness. The coolabah gives height, the scrub baseline. I could dream or wander or stare at it happily for years. So imagine, if you will, us stepping among a dense patch of coolabah and yellow box, with young bimble shoots and tall grasses growing in tufts on the ground. Somewhere in the tangle of life, the ageless trees and newborn stems, a border between nations buzzes through the ground. The border is blind, but does not go unseen, so well-­known is it in the minds of those living either side. Rather than a divide, this border is an exchange point.

Among this coolabah, obscured by the scrub quietly nestled in the borderline, is the hole. A foot wide, no more than one or two deep. Its lip is slightly raised. From a distance it is invisible. If you follow my lead we can fly over to the hole. I know just how to tilt my chin and lift my chest to the breeze that rises from the great Oobi Oobi mountain. It will lift us off the ground and carry us there. Come, let us see this tiny cosmos cradling hole. I have a feeling looking into it that it will have a good effect on our spirit. It will also fill us with energy for our return home, as our speak/listen trade is almost at an end.

As we approach, it seems nothing more than an ant mound. But let me tell you that the hole is an indicator of the way life is lived by freshwater plains people. Mari travel to this small opening outside ceremony times to place within it an object they wish to trade with their neighbouring tribe. Practical, you would think. Except the items placed within the hole have no agreed value, no timeframe for reciprocation, no confirmation of receipt. They are simply deposited there because they help others on the plains thrive in some way. There is no knowledge of the final recipient, no anticipation of thanks. The only arranged outcome in this trade is reciprocation.

So why do it, I hear you ask, when so much is unknown, unvalued and unaccounted for?

My simple answer to you, gayliyaay maliyaa, my good-­hearted friend, is this: why would we not?

Let us land and peer into the hole and wiggle our toes at its edge. Here, my fellow journeyer, I wish to make clear the true point of our meeting. This hole at our feet is not defined by the object that is put within it. Our country does not cradle an object; it embraces relationship, it is oriented around respect and care for networks of people outside our own existence. Take a moment to think upon that and how we use this sophisticated way to ensure strangers to our country are never alienated or ostracised. This hole is a well of commitment, investment and generosity towards others. This is our ceremonial Yuwaalaraay way. I am proud to come from a tradition such as this. Perhaps your elders have encouraged you in similar ways. But standing here now, thinking of the beauty in caring for others in this way, makes me feel no good about the attitude governments and politicians and everyday people have towards outsiders in need. Here on this patch of black soil, with this hole nestled between us emanating kindness, I can’t help but be reminded of times I have failed to show care – when I have spoken angrily or with ego, when I have been selfish and greedy and failed to be humble and respectful. I have been this way many times, largely with those I love most dearly. Places like this, concentrated and strong, bring failings such as this into sharp focus. This tiny hole was designed to resonate with our highest form. That is why it was made on the buzzing borderline and why when we come here, we move in ceremony and lore. The hole teaches us the dangers of coveting attention or affluence or control or resource. It shows us that real value will always and forever lie in people and the care we have in helping each other. You may see my tears fall into the dirt between my feet, dear friend. They are for asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants and exiles and the wrong-­way lore we show them. We have so much – why can we not share?

But I am getting sad. Let me end the sadness by saying that, apart from us countrywomen and countrymen – the first peoples of this land – all Australians were asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants and exiles once. To shake off this sorrow, I will take a walk among the coolibah groves, if you don’t mind, friend. I won’t take long; the trees will soon soothe and sing me back to myself. If you wish, use the time to immerse yourself in the spirit of the hole. When I return, it will be time to travel home.

 

MAY I TAKE your hand? I have found the tree that will take us back. She is mingga, or spirit tree, and she has told me she will carry us back to the city and our homes. As we nestle into her branches, our eyes have been trained to see the small hole, even from a distance. Now that we are cradled by her bark, we will begin our ascent. Mingga extends, lifting us quickly from the ground. The tree grows high above the lake as the mussel shells wave a sparkling goodbye. Quickly we separate from Yuwaalaraay and we are among the stars. As she bends through space and time, we notice the shapes in the darkness between the stars: the great emu and crocodiles in the sky. They are powerful wirringin and so take no notice as we pass. Just as well – they get cranky sometimes and look for mischief. But look: Miyaymiyay, the Seven Sisters constellation, is twinkling at us. The sisters seemed pleased to see us travelling through their home. See how they laugh at those three boys of Orion’s Belt, Birraybirray, chasing hard after them, yet making no ground. Those sisters are too clever for those silly boys. And there are the birds, brolga and eagle and two cockatoos, that make the points of the Southern Cross. You see how birds teem in the sky during both day and night? I love to watch them float, their wings free to dance and preen as they glide through the atmosphere. Mingga lowers her foliage. It covers our faces and shields our bodies. She has been kind enough to shield us from the dangerous ones that lurk here. Hunters and mad men and forever lost souls. They are important parts of the cosmos too and are ballasts in baayangali: the natural order of things. Thank you though, Aunty Tree, for looking out for us in this way. Your leaves smell beautiful, let me rub them into my skin to remember you a little longer after we separate.

Burruguu is so colourful from where we now sit, safe in mingga’s arms, shooting through the stars. The colours of the planets and all the solar systems, the celestial clouds, comets, meteors and vortexes contrast against the blackness. Earth’s inversion pulsates its own form of black beauty. Up here, at this distance, we see how expansive the world truly is. The wonder is what effect we can have in such a world, where we are only a minute speck. But you are not a speck to me. Our family is more than a fleck of dust to us. Mingga is far greater than an insignificant organism taking us from A to B.

Maybe, friend, as we voyage through Warrambool, the great Milky Way, and return to our homes and conclude this speak/listen trade, we can reflect on our true cause in this world. My guess is it does not lie in items of trade or material goods, in money or houses or collections of cars. The most invaluable thing is not a possession we own or pass down, but the parts of ourselves that we give.

We have landed, you at your doorstep, me at mine, our speak/listen trade concluded. We have seen much together, felt many things, considered many new thoughts. I hope you feel happy and healthy and strong, as I do. I also hope you managed to leave something of yourself in my homelands and at its border, in the trade hole for another.

This article was commissioned by Grace Lucas-­Pennington as part of ‘Unsettling the Status Quo’, thanks to support from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

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