The vast continent is really void of speech...this speechless, aimless solitariness was in the air. It was natural to the country.
DH Lawrence, Kangaroo
UNLIKE MANY CITY-DWELLING Australians, the desert holds no terrors for me. Instead, like DH Lawrence, I find the cathedral forests of the coastal regions oppressive and disquieting. Lawrence brought to his descriptions of the Australian bush the same overwrought sensitivity that created the claustrophobic emotional landscape of Sons and Lovers, and the appalling, majestic insularity of the Italian mountain village in The Lost Girl. He was the writer who made explicit the sense of some non-human presence in the Antipodean landscape, and while I have a different interpretation of the ‘speechless, aimless solitariness’ he attributes to the country, his instincts were good.
In his depictions of Australia in the 1923 novel Kangaroo, Lawrence expresses the ambivalence of many visiting Europeans and settler-Australians. For Somers, who stands in for Lawrence as the novel’s central protagonist, the Australian bush is host to a watchful, menacing presence:
But the horrid thing in the bush!… It must be the spirit of the place. Something fully evoked to-night, perhaps provoked, by that unnatural West-Australian moon… He felt it was watching, and waiting… It was biding its time with a terrible ageless watchfulness, waiting for a far-off end, watching the myriad intruding white men.
By the end of the novel Somers has fallen in love with the landscape. It is no longer silent or watchful, but mysterious and enchanted, and he can hear its muted, incomprehensible call.
Meanwhile he wandered round in the Australian spring. Already he loved it. He loved the country he had railed at so loudly a few months ago…it had a deep mystery for him, and a dusky, far-off call that he knew would go on calling for long ages before it got any adequate response, in human beings.
By the time Lawrence visited Australia in 1922, the remnants of the coastal tribes in the southern part of Australia had been incarcerated in missions or driven inland, and their languages mostly silenced. What Somers/Lawrence heard, I think, was the fading murmur of those disappearing languages.
Because English is not the first language of the Australian continent, many early landscape writers heard only an echo of their own anxieties. These anxieties arose from their perception that the land was empty, inimical to people, or inhabited by ghosts and savages.
This cognitive unease about the land and our relation to it, the suggestion of the uncanny so powerfully articulated by Lawrence, continues to haunt much Australian writing. Much of Kangaroo is set on the south-east coast, the part of Australia now largely tamed by habitation, although traces of the uncanny still linger among the scarred sandstone cliffs and light-fractured forests of the Hawkesbury and South Coast. But the genre of the hostile and haunted landscape reached its zenith in Voss (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), Patrick White’s re-imagining of the explorer narratives. Based loosely on the experiences of Ludwig Leichhardt, Voss relocated the uncanny to the inland, and conflated the European trope of seeking enlightenment in the desert with the Australian mythos of death by landscape in a novel that reads like a protracted hallucination.
White’s genius is in his invention of a desert that exists only in the imagination, drawn from his experience of the Middle East, and on the desert paintings of Sidney Nolan (which are also largely imaginary, although Nolan did fly over and visit some Australian deserts). The country of Voss is a vehicle for the aspirations and passions of men. It does not exist apart from Voss and his party; it is felt rather than seen, a force, sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent, an emanation that precedes and envelops those who travel through it. It has less physical substance than the rooms and gardens of the Sydney society that constrains Voss’s female counterpart Laura Trevelyan.
Voss was published when White was forty-five. A year later the third novel of a twenty-three-year-old literary prodigy called Randolph Stow won the Miles Franklin award. To the Islands (MacDonald, 1958) is the story of a Catholic priest, Stephen Heriot, who flees a remote mission believing he has killed an Aboriginal man, learns humility, discovers meaning and dies among the Kimberley rocks.
Stow was the writer, when I was in my teens, who described the kind of world I came from, in which the landscape was paramount. To the Islands might have been set on the south-east Kimberley mission that shared a boundary with the cattle station where I lived. Tourmaline (MacDonald, 1965) could have been the town on the edge of the Simpson Desert where I spent my drought-immersed early childhood. I discovered, long after the event, that Stow lived for a time with his mother in the Perth suburb of Peppermint Grove when I was a wild and reluctant inmate of the boarding school just down the road, writing an impassioned critique of why I preferred his Midnite (Cheshire, 1967) to Animal Farm as an example of satire. Stow spoke to me as no other Australian writer has done before or since. The Merry-go-round in the Sea (MacDonald, 1965) invoked the sensory immersion in place that I knew from my own childhood (and described the competent women and charismatic, damaged men that inhabited it). Years later, when I read Visitants (Secker & Warburg, 1979) I recognised the encounter between different kinds of consciousness that needled my own psyche.
But the landscapes of To the Islands and Tourmaline are also imagined. They are settings for the search for meaning out in the metaphysical void, Stow’s version of the explorer narratives, the apotheosis in the desert that he makes explicit in his poem ‘The Singing Bones’:
No pilgrims leave, no holy days are kept
for these who died of landscape. Who can find,
even, the camp-sites where the saints last slept?
Out there their place is, where the charts are gapped,
unreachable, unmapped, and mainly in the mind.
Time, time and time again, when the inland wind
beats over myall from the dunes, I hear
the singing bones, their glum Victorian strain.
A ritual manliness, embracing pain
to know; to taste terrain their heirs need not draw near.
A ritual manliness. Lawrence, Patrick White, Stow, and the current exemplar of the genre, Nicolas Rothwell, are male, white, the inheritors of a philosophical and spiritual tradition embedded in European scholarship and a European imagination.
Ironically, the writer who most perfectly embodies this sensibility, and one who made the sojourn into the wilderness before writing about it, was female. Tracks (Jonathan Cape, 1980) by Robyn Davidson, is the account of her solo camel trek in 1977 across the Gibson Desert from Uluru to the West Australian coast. Davidson’s quest spoke directly to the great Australian hunger for insights into whatever secrets the desert might hold. That the seeker was a wilful and beautiful young woman sent the pulse rate of the nation into overdrive, and that she survived the journey, rather than succumbing to the obligatory death by landscape, created a myth that still overshadows the life of its progenitor.
After the gendered detour of Tracks, the literary expedition was cajoled back on course by another articulate Englishman, Bruce Chatwin, with his half-fictionalised account of his own Australian desert sojourn. Interpolated with notations about nomadism, walking, dreaming, companion predators and moleskin notebooks, Chatwin’s The Songlines (Jonathan Cape, 1987) was the first popular account of the ancestral routes that mapped the activities of Indigenous creation beings. A captivating confabulation of ideas, Songlines was an invigorating and, to some, infuriating contribution to Australian desert literature.
The explorer narrative continues in the writings of Nicolas Rothwell, stories haunted by nostalgia and a sense of loss, populated by men searching for meaning, ‘chasing after some kind of pattern, some redemption they think might be lurking, on the line of the horizon, out in the faint, receding perspectives of the bush’.
What is consistent in all these books is the presence of Aboriginal people in various configurations. Apart from the young Aboriginal guide, Jacky, who accompanies Voss’s expedition, the Aboriginal figures in White’s novel are spectral, capricious and unknowable. They lurk on the periphery of the explorers’ vision, coming into focus only when an apotheosis is required – to spear the saintly Palfreyman, whose character is later confused with that of Voss, or to encourage the boy Jacky to murder his master. They reflect the existential menace and the alien, impenetrable nature of the country.
Stow’s Aboriginal characters in To the Islands are individual, troubled by the incomprehensible behavior of the whites, struggling to identify right action in a conflicted world. Part of the priest Heriot’s spiritual journey is the recognition that his own birthright as an Australian is founded on the murder of the people he has been trying to convert and control. Stow himself, unable to tolerate the contradictions he perceived in a settler landscape that had usurped the Indigenous world, left Australia in his twenties to find a more comfortable psychic fit in the landscape of East Anglia.
In Tracks, Robyn Davidson meets and is accompanied for a while by Mr Eddie, a Pitjantjatjara man who shows her the practical details of desert life, and allows us a glimpse of the desert as ngurra, home, domesticated and friendly, before Chatwin recolonises it with his bravura insights. Rothwell, who has immersed himself in desert landscapes and cultures for many years, seeks in his recent writing, especially Belomor (Text, 2013), to invest the traditional Aboriginal world with a cultural density and intellectual complexity comparable to that of Europe.
In spite of – or possibly because of – what we are beginning to understand about the webs of kinship and song that connect every part of the country, a deep ambivalence continues to permeate the stories we tell. It has taken a long time for literary forms of writing to pay attention to the sounds that hum along the arteries of the country. The prohibitions against non-Indigenous writers entering this terrain are intensifying, and the ground is pretty complicated for Indigenous writers too, who have to prove their credentials in an increasingly complex territorial domain. It is only those who don’t understand the risks, and those of us who don’t have a choice, who venture onto such dangerous ground.
Had there been a single Indigenous language, a single Indigenous identity, things might have been different. But there were probably around 500 languages spoken on this continent when the First Fleet arrived, some 200 of which are still spoken today. And their imaginative power belongs to the spoken form. As far as I know, there is no literary tradition in an Australian Indigenous language. Indigenous languages are being written down in order to preserve them. Stories are recorded and transcribed so they won’t be lost as the languages that articulate them fall out of use. Languages thought to be lost are being reconstituted from fragments embedded in place names and historical documents and memory. What kind of languages these will be, and what purpose they will serve, is yet to be imagined. If they contain enough of the original sounds and meanings, maybe they’ll reawaken the ancestors, and there’ll be a new conversation between people and country.
In a recent essay, ‘Can my Country hear English? Reflections on the relationship of language to country’, by John Bradley, a scholar who has worked for several decades with the Yanyuwa people in the Gulf country, an elderly woman asks the question, ‘Can my country hear English?’ She concludes that the answer is no. In the same essay a young man says, ‘I want to learn my language so I can speak to country properly.’ The importance of speaking to country in the language it can hear is fundamental to the continuing existence of country in its Aboriginal manifestation, and to counteract the invading literary tropes of emptiness and menace.
Bradley’s essay goes on to describe how every performance of a song is unique, nuanced and individual, and that an oral tradition does not mean an unchanging and unchangeable tradition. What it does mean is a tradition in which the naming and describing of everything that exists in a place is essential to keeping that place alive in the consciousness. To sing the country approximates bringing it into being in all its richness and complexity, and the loss of language – in particular the loss of song – causes place, known, beloved and meaningful, to revert to featureless, primordial space. Language and country can’t be separated. The songline is the song, and the song brings the country into being.
THERE’S A SEA change occurring in the literature of place. Indigenous writers are entering the mainstream, and writing about the inland is being infiltrated by women’s stories, both black and white. Less oppressed by the existential void, less impressed by the explorer narratives, they have an exuberance and vitality that is bringing into the language a very different sensibility, and one whose time has come.
In 2017, the National Museum of Australia hosted an exhibition, Songlines – Tracking the Seven Sisters, that brought to the Australian public an immersive experience of one of the great Dreaming epics, the account of the Pleiades and their pursuer as they created the landforms, waterholes and vegetation of the Western Desert. I worked on the exhibition as a writer and researcher, which drew me into the ancestral story of the Seven Sisters (called the Minyipuru by the Martu, and the Kungkarrangkalpa by the Anangu) as they fled across the desert, pursued by a lustful sorcerer named Yurla or Wati Nyiru. During this time, fragments of ideas and conversations, snippets of knowledge and flickers of intuition began to coalesce. For a long time I had been wondering whether there might be a collective consciousness, shared by the custodians of particular country, in which the landforms of their country reflected their own psychological terrain, whether to walk around country was tantamount to walking around inside their own minds. These ideas had been lodged in me from years of messing about in the desert with Aboriginal people, lending myself to whatever task came to hand, talking to whitefellas as enmeshed as I was with this parallel reality. I had absorbed whatever came my way, often not grasping what I had learnt until much later. My work on the Songlines exhibition was of a kind with the other things I had done, the result of an accumulation of skills that fitted no job description, and made me unemployable in the conventional job market, but uniquely qualified for random and obscure tasks relating to Aboriginal projects.
In this instance, I was writing the wall texts that would give the viewing public enough information to interpret the exhibition – but not too much. This required me first to absorb myself in the exhibition content, and then to distil from it the essential elements of the narrative and translate them into succinct, accessible texts. I was familiar with the story and many of the locations, but this attention to detail brought into focus the sheer vitality of the songline, along with the nuances and differences that existed across the language groups.
We were working with sexually explicit material that had to be turned into a family-friendly show that communicated something meaningful and accessible to an audience with no prior knowledge of Indigenous culture. There were aspects of the story that could not be made explicit because of cultural prohibitions. The raw material was violent, gendered, hilarious, shocking, politically incorrect. I couldn’t use words like penis, or rape, or blood. It was an act of double-censoring, respecting Indigenous sensitivities and complying with museum requisites. While I grappled with the challenge of retaining the vitality of the story for a general audience, the suppressed content bubbled away under the surface.
Many of the ancestral stories don’t translate across cultures, but the story of the Seven Sisters is universal. It is about the mismatch between male and female desire – the relentless pursuit of the sisters by Wati Nyiru, the hyper-vigilance of the women, the humiliation they mete out to the sorcerer when they get the chance, the sexual violence he inflicts on whichever of the women he can get his hands on, the rare moments of fear and shame when he wonders what is driving him, the mutual support the sisters offer each other.
The familiar tale of the lustful, powerful man making unwanted advances towards the reluctant woman (or women) makes it an ideal vehicle through which to explore the less communicable aspects of the songline. The old man sorcerer and the sisters are everywhere embodied in the features of the landscape. In Ngaanyatjarra country the black caves of Wati Nyiru’s eyes glare from under the brow-ridges of an escarpment, fixed on the boulders that are the oldest and youngest of the sisters. A cluster of rocks perched on the profile of a flat-topped hill are the Martu Minyipuru keeping out of reach of Yurla, who hunkers in a waterhole below. In the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, Wati Nyiru turns himself into a quandong tree to seduce the Kungkarangkalpa with fruit and shade; they fall ill when they mistake his wandering penis for a carpet snake and cook and eat it. At any moment the sorcerer’s errant member can detach itself from its owner, burst out of a vulva-shaped rock-hole, penetrate a cave, infiltrate the crevices of an escarpment. The country is alive, sexualised and dangerous; safety is provisional and temporary; to survive requires vigilance and quick-wittedness.
There was much discussion, in the early stages of exhibition planning, of the meaning of songlines – what they were, what they did, whether the word ‘songline’ was a legitimate description of these mythic itineraries that animated the ancestral landscape. Philip Jones, author of Ochre and Rust (Wakefield Press, 2007), describes songlines as ‘a kind of scripture, a framework for relating people to land, and to show that their relationship is inalienable’. He also notes that ‘regional songlines are connected to longer continental narratives’.
The major songlines, such as the Seven Sisters, are like arteries that carry the life force of the culture through the body of the country. The re-enactment of ancestral events draws on that arterial energy, and feeds back into it, in a cycle that makes deep time continuous with the present. The performance of ceremony and song at the creation sites, where ancient dramas are inscribed in the landforms, reinvigorates the Dreaming, ensuring that the country remains alert and alive.
The songlines are fixed in the landscape, but the performance is mobile. To perform the ceremony in the place where the story has its genesis is to carry out its most essential manifestation, but it can be performed elsewhere in order to communicate and educate. With permission, country can be danced and sung on other people’s country. The performance, the inma, is the narrative expression of the physical body of the country.
As I burrowed into the meanings of the paintings, watched the videos, listened to the voices and the songs, felt the country come alive within the context of what I knew of other places and other songlines, I began to understand something. This raunchy stalker narrative about rape and revenge and humiliation, this tale of fear and hilarity and grief and resilience, about sex and manipulation and trickery, about a landscape volatile with the forces that surge through the human world, was a conduit of psychological energy, a way for people to perform the stark and violent dramas of their own lives and draw sustenance from participating in a story that draws on a deep, shared past and a shared continuous present.
Beyond what I knew about the reanimation of place and the reaffirmation of tradition and identity was an embodied narrative that provided something necessary and regenerative for its performers. There was a visceral processing of lived experience going on, a re-enacting of sex and violence and empathy and grief and revenge and remorse and obsession that suggested that the performance of the story was a way of processing the traumatic events that people encountered in daily life – a performative pressure valve that acted out the injury, the agency and the resilience of its players.
The Martu women Kumpaya Girgirba and Jakayu Biljabu tell with relish the story behind an often-performed ceremony at Kalypa, the site of Well 23 on the Canning Stock Route:
Yurla was watching all the ladies fly away in fear…to Kalypa, where the women fought off a group of men who desired them… All the men at Kalypa were from my people…grandfather and all those men wanted wives. They begged the women: ‘Stay with me only, stay with me.’ Well, the women said, ‘We never came for you, we are our own selves!’ The women hit them and hit them…until they all fell down.
Bryony Nicholson, in her contribution to the Songlines catalogue, describes the performance of a harrowing part of the story by women who identify as the current manifestations of the Kungkarangkalpa: ‘In the performance…was another telling of the story – one steeped in the shared experience of the sisters and suffused with feelings for family.’
Tjayanka Woods, a senior holder of the story, dances the role of the eldest sister Kampukurta, who is attacked by Wati Nyiru while she is gathering quandong. In performing the grief and pain of this ancient event, the dancing provides an opportunity to express more recent grief and pain. The dying sister Kampukurta embodies the death of the woman who last danced the role, and all who have danced it before her. The sisterhood’s empathy that accompanied the dancing reinforces the sense of being ‘held’ by their people and their country. To be ‘held’ is fundamental to the Anangu sense of wellbeing, and performing the inma is a way of sharing contemporary sorrow and its aftermath via the ancient but ever-present stories woven into the landscape.
More than a generous and entertaining insight into Indigenous culture, the public exhibition of the Seven Sisters songline is a powerful expression of an integrated world view, in which the land is as conscious as the people who live in it, and the relationship between kin and country is indissoluble. The desire to share this living story with the wider Australian population is an attempt by its custodians to make an active and viable space for different cultures to interact and recognise each other.
IT’S WHAT IS happening at this interface that excites me. Through long-established partnerships, collaborations grounded in trust, friendship and respect, plus technologies that allow for different kinds of storytelling, voices in their multitudes are making themselves heard, framing new stories along with the old.
Back in 2000 I saw a remarkable exhibition at the contemporary art space 24HR Art in Darwin. Two Laws…One Big Spirit was a painterly dialogue between Rusty Peters, a Gija artist from the Kimberley, and the New Zealand-born pakeha painter Peter Adsett. Over a period of several weeks, the artists each produced a painting on alternate days in response to the other, beginning with The Waterbrain, Rusty Peters’ painting of his conception site.
The exhibition should be on permanent display as the focus of an ongoing cross-cultural discourse in which European modernism converses with Indigenous symbolism, the literal engages with the metaphoric, the narrative with the conceptual. There is reciprocal acknowledgement between traditions that remain obscure to each other. In the painting Two Laws…One Big Spirit, from which the exhibition took its title, Rusty Peters attempts to reconcile the Aboriginal and the whitefella belief systems at a conceptual level, suggesting that while the different laws may be incomprehensible to each other, they come from the same spiritual source. Adsett uses the material properties of paint to create a liminal edge between apparent opposites, making the equivalent point through abstraction. It’s a dialogue that could only take place between painters, and Adsett said that the sustained activity of making the work, side by side, day after day, finding in the process a means of communication without comprehension, became the most significant aspect of the project. To quote from the review I wrote at the time, ‘In this encounter a traditional Aboriginal man painting inside the boundaries of his country, paints his way into a conceptual language which makes the space for another kind of law, a different kind of country. And a white man paints his way into the liminal space where there is neither black nor white…’
But for the purposes of this essay I want to talk about The Waterbrain, the painting that started the dialogue. According to the artist, the waterbrain is a prerequisite for individual human existence. It floats in bodies of water, waiting for the pending human identity it will occupy and animate. This consciousness enters the human foetus and is reborn into the world, where it grows and learns, becomes adult, ages and forgets before returning to the water to be recycled.
Rusty Peters’ articulation of this concept, unique in contemporary Aboriginal painting, seems to have evolved as a result of conversations with the art impresario Tony Oliver, and manifested first in the painting dialogue with Adsett. Peters revisited this theme in the magisterial twelve-metre Waterbrain purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW Gallery in 2002, which charts the various stages of development of a human being. The final Waterbrain painting, produced in 2012, shows its disintegration as the ageing brain loses its memory.
Among the Yanyuwa of the Gulf country, song converts the raw matter of space into a storied and inhabited place. To the Gija, the waterbrain is a sentient waterborne element that animates human existence. The Minyipuru and Kungkarrangkalpa songlines carry the lifeblood of song through people and country. This is a world view in which country, the languages in which country is addressed and performed, and the people who perform the ceremonies, together comprise a sentient being that needs all its components to function – an autochthonous place-based consciousness articulated through song, embodied in dance, embedded in landforms, that flows between people and country through the conduit of the songlines.
And these songlines are not immutable. They embrace change and evolve to incorporate strangers.
In 2006, while I was working at the small Aboriginal community of Mulan in the south-east Kimberley, my dog Slippers was run over and killed. I buried her at the foot of a sand dune near Parnkupirti Creek, which I knew was the route of the ancestral dingoes known as Kunyarrjarra, the Two Dogs, who created the Paruku lake system in the Dreamtime. I didn’t know, when I buried Slippers, that her grave was close to a sacred stone ‘put down’ by the dingoes, but my inadvertent choice of a site in the heart of dog dreaming country was interpreted in my favour. Eleven years later another dog died – Jiwawa, a chihuahua bitch (small dogs are popular in the desert) belonging to Hanson Pye, a senior custodian of that particular stretch of the dreaming track. The dog was having seizures, and Hanson brought her to me to see if I knew what was wrong. She had recently produced a litter of ten pups, and it was likely she was overwhelmed and undernourished – whatever the reason, she died while we were discussing what might be wrong with her. Hanson decided she should be buried next to Slippers so they would have company out there in the dog dreaming country. Later that day we drove to the gravesite with the Ranger co-ordinator Jamie Brown, and Jamie and Hanson buried Jiwawa while I cleared the spinifex from Slippers’ grave.
The following morning Hanson came to see me, excited and troubled. He had had a dream, he said, in which Jiwawa and Slippers were running about and playing together on the sandhill, and Hanson, Jamie and I were walking around together. The Two Dogs and the son, the mother and the grandson, he said, referring to the kinship relationships between us.
He was agitated. The dream signified something, and he wanted it recognised. I suggested he write it down in Walmajarri and together we would translate it into English and see how the story came out.
This is what we produced:
Parnkupirti Kunyarrjarra Mapirrijati Marnpa
‘Two Dogs Together Again’
Kunyarrjarra lo pila nganimpa wanjani
The two dogs left us
Ngajukura lu nyuntukura lu, Japangati lu Napurrula lu
My dog and your dog – Hanson’s dog and Kim’s dog
Kanga palipa Parnkupirtila kunyarr
We took my dog to Parnkupirti
Palipa yutukani kanyn Parnkupirtila
We three buried her in the dog dreaming place
Palipa yutukani manpa Napurrula kunyarrta
We buried her beside Kim’s dog
Palipa yutukani Parnkupirtila jiljinga kanyn
We buried her at Parnkupirti sandhill
Kani palipa ngurranga kunyarr wanjani
We left her there in home ground.
Juju lu parnki manila kunyarrlu
It woke up the song of the Two Dogs
Winkirr mani mana ngajungu pukanja
In my dream last night
Ngaji, ngamaji, jaja – Japangarti, Napurrula, Japalji
Me, my mother and the grandson – Hanson, Kim and Jamie
Palipa waman kitpinga ruwa
We three were walking around together
Kunyarrjarra pilangan waman wanga
The two dogs were chasing around together
Kunyarrjarra pilangan palipinga
The two dogs found each other
Juju pilu pankimani
They woke up the dreaming.
Although I don’t believe in the Dreaming as a literal reality, I can’t help but be glad that my dog has contributed to the living tradition of Paruku, and that her canine spirit has found a friend to play with out there in the dog dreaming place.
In his 1968 Boyer lectures, the anthropologist WEH Stanner said: ‘There is stuff in Aboriginal life, culture and society that will stretch the sinews of any mind which tries to understand it.’ For those of us whose psychology has its origins in a different cultural tradition, to spend a long time in proximity to this potent psychological realm can tilt the self into a strange borderland, a hybrid form of consciousness that does not belong in either culture.
‘What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left in us by the secrets of others.’ This quote is from The Shell and the Kernel (University of Chicago Press, 1994) by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok. They posit the theory – ‘encryption’ – that something can become entombed in the psyche, where it continues to live, a potentially malignant entity that fuels our preoccupations and seeps into our dreams – the absence, perhaps, of those lost languages that Lawrence mistook for silence? Or the country where charts are gapped; where places are unreachable, unmapped?
When that secret is the inaccessible heart of another culture, located in a place to which your own heart is beholden, then something complicated happens.
This splinter of an idea embeds itself in my mind and festers. What happens if the live thing that has become encrypted in the psyche is another form of consciousness, one implicit in the landscape from which we draw our own sense of identity? What happens if that different consciousness invades and destabilises the one we have inherited? I think it’s responsible for the edgy discomfort of the times we are in: the reluctance of white Australians to engage with Indigenous people for fear of transgressing some invisible boundary; the suspicion and scepticism among the diverse groups who identify as Aboriginal, or Indigenous, or First Nations People, the instability of terminology indicating the unstable nature of the identity.
Since the first Europeans entered the consciousness of the country, speaking a language it couldn’t understand, the country has been whispering back, its voices pitched to reach the psyche’s inner ear. Lawrence heard the voices, faintly, and didn’t know what he was hearing. Stow heard them and couldn’t bear to stay and listen. I’ve been hearing them all my life. I sometimes think that this extra sense has produced in me a kind of moral inertia, which manifests as an acceptance of the way things are, rather than a desire to fix or change them. Up to a point this is a good thing, but it can leach away the energy to feel strongly about things that warrant strong feelings.
I should, for instance, be troubled by the return of the cattle to Lake Gregory Station, the pastoral lease that occupies the same country as the Indigenous Protected Area of Paruku. The prospect is greeted with excitement by the local Aboriginal people. In the years since the pastoral enterprise collapsed, its custodians have never relinquished their identity as cattle people, their pride in being stockmen and camp cooks and drovers. The Indigenous Protected Area, declared in 2001, has not delivered outcomes comparable to those the re-establishment of the cattle station is expected to provide. The reasons for this are complicated and frustrating, a case study in the multiple ways in which good intentions, poor communication, political correctness and contradictory expectations can sabotage good policies.
The local people are entitled, as owners of the country, to use it as they choose, and there is growing pressure for Indigenous people to produce a viable income from the land they hold. Leasehold agreements are an emerging solution. That the cattle may have a significant environmental impact on this unique arid-zone lake system is an argument that has lost traction in recent years.
My feelings are mixed. The environmental threat from the cattle is significant, but under efficient management the enterprise may deliver some good outcomes for the local people, although I’m sceptical that the neighbouring community will be able to resist the temptation of free beef on their doorstep. And if certain families receive more benefits than others it will activate the resentments that simmer beneath the patina of kinship amity.
It’s a long time since any serious ceremony has been performed for the country. The eastern Walmajarri language particular to Paruku is spoken now by only the most senior traditional owner, who laments that when she’s gone there’ll be no one to talk to the lake in its own language. The cattle station taps into more recent dreams, of a way of life people remember as meaningful and structured, when working the cattle was synonymous with time spent on country, and compatible with ceremony and kinship obligations. While this view is distorted by nostalgia, it’s possible that the return of the cattle will provide a different kind of energy, a new way to perform and participate in dreaming the country.
IT’S AN OVERCAST morning in late May, and my youngest brother and I are bush-bashing across dense spinifex and wattle scrub, on a trackless stretch of the station where we lived as children. Our father named this place the Graveyards decades ago, not because of buried bodies, but to mark a labyrinth of eroded limestone several kilometres to the north, scoured by an anomalous watercourse to resemble the skeletons of imaginary monsters. The watercourse is the result of a system of lakes and swamps that only overflow in extreme flood conditions, decanting and back-filling between the dunes until the water builds enough pressure to cut through and find its way down to the extensive salt lake systems to the south. According to geological records this occurs every thousand years or so, when the palaeo-channels of the ancient Tanami topography are activated, although some time in the deep past it must have been a lot more frequent.
We cross the southernmost of the sandhills through which the watercourse cuts its route and drive down into the sandy creek bed at the centre of the channel. The creek is choked with ti-tree, and it’s apparent that we can’t drive the vehicles along it. The limestone formation is only three kilometres away, so we take water, cameras, my brother’s drone and my dog Pirate, and set out to walk the remaining distance.
The last time I walked this way was soon after one of those fabled extreme rainfall events. There was water everywhere, and the southern section of the creek was still flowing sluggishly. There was a crescent-shaped pool where a sandhill terminated, and a dingo watched me from the lee of the dune. Ti-tree seedlings were already sprouting across the channel with the boom-and-bust opportunism of the desert.
I was looking for the limestone labyrinth on that occasion too, but there were other people to consider, and a slow drive home through dense whipstick wattle. If we were to get back to the homestead before dark I had limited time, and it wasn’t enough. I must have come close, because in less than an hour of walking my brother and I overshoot the site, which is obscured by the now well-established ti-tree. We check the GPS reading and angle back to the south-west, emerging from the tree cover to an expanse of red earth from which weather-smoothed domes of limestone protrude like human skulls. Beyond the domes is the vast bony excrescence, honeycombed by wind and water, that my father came upon more than fifty years ago, tracking strayed cattle as they chased storms into the desert. I try to imagine it as it would have been without the vegetation that has colonised the channel in the past decade. It might have been centuries since the watercourse last flowed when my father followed it south, riding a narrow-wheeled motorbike that must have been difficult to manoeuvre through the sand.
The precise GPS reading we’re using is for the location of a small wooden box containing ashes belonging to our parents, brought here on a family pilgrimage seven years ago. That was the third attempt my brother and I made to find this place, having made a second foray the year after the floods, driving across country from the north, turning back when we ran out of time and tyres. It was not until the third trip, with a convoy of vehicles and more time to explore, that we were able to come in from the east, driving along the swales and working our way south-west around the sand ridges.
Stories accrete in the landscape, along with the meanings we attribute to them. I imagined this place, long before I saw it, and made it part of the itinerary of a fictional alter ego called the mapmaker. Her task was to draw ephemeral daily mud maps, predicting the events and hazards that lay ahead. She’s as much a part of my connection to the country as the human ashes now absorbed into the growing coolibah, or the footprints we’ve made walking here today, some of which may last for years.
When I saw this place for the first time it was stranger than I expected. It seemed then, and still seems now, like an intrusion from another reality, the trace of something ancient and incommunicable that was never meant to be revealed. The opposite of encryption, perhaps, where a greater mystery lies in what has been exposed.
From space, satellite technology shows a kink in the waterway, a geomorphic glitch that splits and redirects the flow. Sometime in the ancient past water seeped into some pre-existing form and replaced it with limestone. Was it before or after the cold, dry, windy centuries that laid down the sand ridges and choked the palaeo-channels? Certainly it was before an invigorated monsoon triggered an era of high rainfall and turbulent water that churned down through the dunes and carved out this time-warped intersection.
Only a few rotting splinters remain of the box of ashes that we placed in a bony socket of limestone seven years ago. A young white-barked coolibah has taken root in the cavity, which acts as a reservoir for water and nutrients. Across the honeycomb formation other small twisted saplings have sprung from their elaborately wrought containers. I imagine coming back years hence to find a garden of bonsai gums rooted in stone.
I would like some of my own ashes brought here, when the time comes, although I hope to visit again before that happens. I doubt that anyone else will come, apart from dingoes and an occasional camel. It’s Ngardi country, a language spoken now by only a handful of elderly people. When this place last heard its own language spoken is anyone’s guess. I should have thought to bring the recording I made ten years ago of Dora Mungkina Napaltjarri, Ngardi speaker and traditional owner of this patch of the desert. Sorry, country, I say. Wiyarr, ngurrara. I’ll remember next time. Will it be enough, and do I have the authority, to keep this thread of the Dreaming alive?
I am beset by a sense of time passing and time lost and things changing and nothing changing. This brings with it a loneliness that intensifies as the years pass. The desire to share what I have experienced becomes more insistent, and the impossibility of sharing it becomes more acute. To write it down is the best I can do.