Persephone's picnic

A meeting of minds in the desert

THE OLD STONE quarry sits in the range high above Ilparpa Valley, on the south side of Alice Springs. Once there was a road leading up here, washed away now, leaving just a narrow track. At the top there’s a flattened turnaround where trucks and machinery and men would have laboured. How it all ended I don’t know. There’s still the stone here for a fine facade or two, tumbled from the jagged yawn in the cliff face. In the late afternoon, the reds and orange of the west-facing rock blaze with light. Birds of prey wheel in the updraft, the sky almost violet above them. It’s a place of beauty and of damage.

It was here that we gathered on two evenings in August and September 2015, to eat together – a Mediterranean picnic – and to take part in a performance of the ancient story that stands at the head of that food tradition: the story of Demeter, mother of corn or seeds, and her daughter Kore/Persephone. When Kore disappears into the underground realm of Hades, Demeter’s grief settles as a deep winter upon the earth, a time of great hunger. It thaws only with the return of Kore, renamed Persephone by Hades. In the warming land, plants blossom and bear fruit again. Persephone’s reunion with Demeter, though, is conditional on her spending part of each year with Hades. Her descent marks the onset of winter; her return the arrival of spring. This understanding of the northern hemisphere seasons and their cyclical impact on plant growth is the underpinning of European food cultivation and harvest.

Alice Springs is marked by a different ancient story tradition that makes the local ‘we’ a difficult category, especially when the ‘we’ gathers on country. The town is dense with sites and trees sacred to the Arrernte: some six hundred, many more than commonly known, have been mapped ahead of the local rollout of the National Broadband Network. In principle, the sites are protected by legislation, yet they continue to be damaged, whether deliberately or as casualties of compromise, ignorance and neglect. The quarry in the range above Ilparpa Valley predates the legislation; it is almost certainly desecrated ground. This is part of what Craig San Roque, originator of the performance, wanted us to think about. He gathered by word of mouth this crowd of loosely connected people, almost all of settler background. Some of us have lived here for decades, even a generation or two; many more are recent arrivals – and there are family and friends from interstate who have come especially for the performance.


SAN ROQUE IS a psychologist with a poetic turn of mind and decades of experience in Central Australia, including in Aboriginal mental health. In addition to his clinical work, he undertakes creative explorations, in different community settings (including international Jungian colloquiums), into the way foundational cultural stories construct our psychic beings and ways of thinking. They are so deeply embedded that they resist our conscious awareness of them, and can trap us in simplistic self-confirming repetition when it comes to dealing with changing circumstances and with others whose mentalities are differently constituted. In this sense, mythic personages ‘walk’ not only in the ancestral past but also in the active present.

San Roque examines both the Western and the desert Aboriginal traditions in this light. For anyone who has had contact with traditionally oriented Aboriginal people on their country, it is not difficult to accept that their Dreaming stories are alive and active in the present. They engage you imaginatively in this experience, with the way they see and move through the landscape and through their stories, song, dance and art. To provide non-Aboriginal people with an opportunity to imaginatively ‘mind our own stories’ was part of what San Roque set out to do with Persephone’s picnic.

It was not the first time he had turned to early Mediterranean European mythology in his work in Central Australia. In 1991, he was asked by a senior Warlpiri man, the late A Spencer Japaljarri, whether Europeans had a story about intoxication that might help local Aboriginal people think about it. As their traditional law did not speak to control of intoxication in any significant way, it made sense to Japaljarri that the European wine and viticulture story could be useful if it were told in forms similar to a Jukurrpa (‘Dreaming’) story. San Roque spent much of the 1990s bringing this idea to fruition in collaboration with Japaljarri, as well as with Barry Cook and Elva Abbott Cook Nangala of Injartnama outstation, where the couple ran a unique rehabilitation program. A series of performance events, paintings and a film, under the title The Sugarman Project, were created at Injartnama and in Alice Springs, all based on the early Mediterranean accounts of the spread of wine culture and drunkenness as embodied in the myths of Dionysus.

In the process, San Roque realised that the project, for all its good intentions in relation to substance abuse treatment for Aboriginal people, was as much about settler Australians of European descent: ‘Dionysus’s tale is a revelation of the geological strata of our ambivalent national character – both the drunken and predatory ruthlessness, and also the compassionately restorative nature of the people of Europe.’


HIS WORK ON the myth of Demeter and Persephone also began in an Aboriginal setting, this time at Alekarenge, some three hundred and fifty kilometres north of Alice Springs. The community is on Kaytetye country, its name referring to an important Kaytetye Dog Dreaming. It has also been home for decades now to Warlpiri, Alyawarr and Warumungu people, among others, moved off their traditional lands. This can make for an uneasy mix and cause frustrations and resentments for the Kayetye traditional owners. On the Stuart Highway the community is sign-posted as Ali Curung, twenty-two kilometres to the east. The land stretches out in a flat plain of orange dirt, spinifex grasses, thin scrub.

Aboriginal landowners everywhere are under pressure to commercially develop their lands. There’s no mining afoot at Alekarenge but the land is well suited to horticulture. The soil is arable and the arid climate is protective against fungal and bacterial diseases; there is plentiful underground water and the area is above the frost zone. In the 1960s and early 1970s, a market garden and piggery thrived close to the settlement. Though remembered fondly by older locals, it was abandoned as welfare dependency kicked in.

In 2007, a commercial operator leased a thousand hectares from the Alekarenge Horticultural Company Pty Ltd, which belongs to traditional owners and residents through two separate corporations. The lessee, from Condobolin in NSW, named the property Desert Springs and has been harvesting fine crops of seedless watermelons for a number of years. Other crops being trialled or considered for the lease include chia, pomegranates, mangoes and asparagus.

Hopes that locals would take up the seasonal jobs at the farm – the expressed desire of the lessee – have mostly not been realised. This is despite high levels of unemployment in the community, including among those under thirty-four most suited to hard physical work. The six-kilometre journey has been cited as one reason for reluctance to take the farm jobs. Transport is certainly available for other purposes, but not with the reliability that conventional employment requires. Just as significant, no doubt, is the absence of mentality-shaping stories for farming in this mode. The local stories, ceremonies and practices (including the use of fire to manage plant growth) relate to nomadic hunter-gatherer traditions, which persist at least partially in most remote communities, but in too limited a way to provide food security.

In principle, Alekarenge community members want to take the European-style farm experience further than simply being recipients of a share of revenue generated by the lessee. They see the potential of a farm project of their own to supply food, work, education and opportunity to local people, but to date – apart from a very few trying their hand at seed planting and melon picking – that’s as far as it has gone.

This is where San Roque came in. In an unusually imaginative move, he was employed by Centrefarm, an economic development entity associated with the Central and Northern Land Councils, which represent the owners of the Aboriginal lands that today make up half of the Northern Territory. His job was intended to enliven thinking and sharpen appreciation of what establishing and sustaining farming on local land would mean for this and future generations. Key collaborators in his work were Lindy Andren and Greg McAdam. Andren, an anthropologist who also had a background in small business, was Centrefarm’s corporate manager, overseeing engagement, governance and research. McAdam was employed to do engagement on the ground, initially with a focus on getting people into jobs. He is of Anglo and local Aboriginal (Arrernte and Warumungu) ancestry, and has significant bi-cultural experience. San Roque describes him as ‘a man of dual mentality’, skilled at navigating between the so-called mainstream and Aboriginal people who remain deeply connected to their traditions, despite all the disruptions to them. McAdam soon recognised the disconnect between external expectations of local people taking up jobs and the realities of community life, where working as kin for kin is the priority. This is sufficiently subsidised by welfare benefits to remove the necessity of seeking paid work. To get conversations ‘onto the same page’, he emphasised the importance of song-story-dance in the transmission of ideas from both sides.

Centrefarm’s Sam Miles, an agronomist of forty years’ experience, also saw such a process as essential. Without it, how could the project be meaningfully committed to the consensus ad idem principle of contract law – the idea that the two parties to a contract must have the same understanding of what they are agreeing to? The principle is also referred to as ‘a meeting of the minds’. Aboriginal lands across the desert are littered with the detritus of well-intentioned ventures where this fundamental principle has been glossed over or pushed aside. It goes to mentality, says San Roque, ‘to the differences and similarities in thinking of two major systems of civilisation’.

Before settlement, Aboriginal people answered the imperative of hunger with hunter-gatherer activity, living off the land, managing access to it and distribution of its resources through their traditional law and kinship networks. These days in the vast majority – if not all – remote Aboriginal communities some people still go out into country, or take to sea, to hunt and gather – but it can only supplement their food supply. They rely for the greater part on shopping trips to town or the local shop, where there is a limited and expensive range of fresh produce. That people often go hungry is also a reality of life in remote communities. Aspects of the old subsistence mentality endure. For instance, ‘wealth’ continues to be dispersed rather than stored. Storage was a key development in the agricultural mentality so taken for granted in the West, though evolution of its processes stretch back over millennia. In Alekarenge and throughout the remote regions, where immediacy and demand-sharing among kin are key features of how people live, storage – like supply and distribution – faces mentality challenges, as well as the practical ones of distance and small, scattered populations.

What would it take to make a locally worked and controlled farm a reality at Alekarenge? This was the question to which a bi-cultural conversation in the community sought answers. San Roque chose the Demeter and Persephone myth as the contribution from the European tradition. The story is directly about the development of farming culture, as reflected in the Roman naming of Demeter as Ceres, the basis of the English word ‘cereal’. Persephone’s journey to and from the underworld embeds an understanding of European seasonal changes and their impact on plant growth, which are far more sharply defined and predictable (at least till now) than in the Australian arid zone. There was no claim by San Roque and his colleagues of some sort of higher ground. The lessons of the story – conveyed through a series of narrative paintings – were as much for Centrefarm staff as for the people of Alekarenge: ‘I was saying to them, do you know just how long it took Europeans to develop their understanding of cultivation? Millennia. Yet Aboriginal people of traditional orientation are being asked to make that leap in a generation.’ Further, they are being asked to make it with scarcely any attention being paid to how they manage their sacred law in relation to this new mode of land-based activity. Pushing through without complex understanding on both sides may result in short-term compliance, but is unlikely to be sustained.

The project at Alekarenge, at a peak in 2012, has since fallen victim to the stop-start funding that plagues many initiatives in Aboriginal contexts. Its question – what would it take to make their own farm work? – remains without definitive answer for the time being, which is not to say that it is not being thought about. San Roque himself was certainly not finished with thinking about Demeter and Persephone. If the issues of food security and land use are sharply in focus at Alekarenge, as in other remote communities, they are pressing too (although scarcely recognised) in Alice Springs, highly dependent on imported goods and services of every kind. If true consensus ad idem is being raised as a standard to meet in decision-making in Alekarenge, then it is breaking ground in the urgent thinking about the future that must be done across every facet of life in the Central Australian region. Which brings us to Persephone’s picnic in the abandoned stone quarry, looking out over Ilparpa Valley.


FOR MOST OF us picnickers, our ancestral places are found in the European sphere, and in our severance from it we experience a sense of loss at some level. Even as we sat beneath the fiery cliff face in the centre of the Australian continent, we were taken back to roots, to Delphi in ancient Greece, the navel or womb of the world, so the story goes: ‘Demeter was travelling. She came from the north. She came down through the mountain, Demeter, travelling with her daughter. Two women travelling; together, down through the mountain.’

Straightaway, an echo sounded with the Aboriginal stories of Central Australia. It was there in the rhythm and repetitions, and also in the action. The travels of ‘two women’ (sisters) can be seen across the landscape of Alice Springs, from right in the centre of town, at Akeyulerre (Billy Goat Hill) and Atnelkentyarliweke (Anzac Hill), northwards through to the country around the earliest European settlement in the area, the Old Telegraph Station. What we were hearing was not the way the classical European story is usually told, but rather a poetic re-visioning by San Roque, prompted by the work at Alekarenge. It freely borrowed much of its character from Aboriginal desert people’s song, simultaneously locating the story in the central deserts of Australia and in the Mediterranean. The point was to show the similarities in thinking by the ancients, whether here or there. We may have largely lost touch with our own foundational stories and be blind to the way they continue to shape our thinking, but traditionally oriented Aboriginal people make clear that their contemporary world view is still strongly shaped by the stories of creation ancestors travelling across the country, forming it as they went and being embodied within it. So it was with Demeter, manifesting at the Mother Rock (Athena Pronia) at Delphi. Where Demeter travelled the land divided, rivers ran, mountains rose and plants grew.

We settler-picnickers in Central Australia, and I daresay our counterparts elsewhere, are so used to thinking about cultural difference in relation to Aboriginal Australians; it was eye-opening to experience, on a damaged site in country, such resonance between our cultural foundations. As we were drawn deeper into the experience, the intimacy of Aboriginal connection with the land, their sense of oneness with it, became less of an abstract notion. Aboriginal people, alongside whom we live and come into contact with daily in Alice Springs, speak of the land and with the land – this land where the town has grown – as kin. When it is damaged, they feel the injury as to living kin and in their bodies. When the late custodian Thomas Stevens Peltharre spoke of the felled Ntyarlke (ancestral caterpillar) tree – deliberately destroyed in 1982 to make way for a road – he spoke of the ‘old man, poor old man there’. The tree had been growing on a low ridge, the end of which was dynamited in the same roadworks. We might see the destruction as only partial, the rest of the ridge remained, but that’s not how Peltharre saw it. ‘The Ntyarlke caterpillar belonging to this site was still alive before this road went through,’ he said. More recently, in 2011, I sat with custodian Doris Kngwarraye Stuart in her flat one day, not far from the eastern edge of town, listening to the sound of jack-hammers as they gouged out the side of a small sacred hill nearby. Somehow it had fallen through the cracks of the protection legislation. She was sick with distress. ‘This is why we live short lives,’ she kept saying. All this destruction and grief, so unnecessary – such a failure of imagination on our part, apart from anything else.

Enlivening our imagination was San Roque’s task. A oneness of body and land was beautifully evoked in the Demeter of his poetic script: ‘She rose up, she covered the whole world. The whole world inside her body; in the beginning. The whole sky inside her body. Two eagles flew around her, inside her. One flew to the east, one flew to the west. The two eagles flew right around the body of Demeter. They flew right around inside the skin of the sky; inside the body of the first mother.’ With the echo of Arrernte song in our ears, we looked up: off the red cliffs at Ilparpa eagles, falcons, kites soared. It was as if they and the land itself were taking part in the drama.

The environmental philosopher Freya Mathews speaks of our invoking the world to enter into poetic communication with us: ‘…we bring to it – or can bring to it, if we choose – something that calls it forth on a new expressive plane, a plane of meaning and not merely of causation.’ This seemed to be happening. Mathews recognises that this is an ancient modality, and argues for its recovery in our time of global ecological collapse: ‘…when our “address” to the world is negative, discounting its communicative potential, the world will respond in kind: if we turn our backs on it, treating it as nothing but an object, as modern science does, then it will turn its back on us, revealing to us only the hard carapace of its nuts-and-bolts aspect.’

Demeter lovingly invoked the world in her body: ‘She marks out a line deep between the mountains. The Shining Mountains, she calls them. She makes the line deep. It cuts through her body. She cuts a long cut between her breasts. Water runs always along this cut. Down this line a river will run, she says. It will run to the sea, it runs all the way down. She names it – Pleisto – the best. This is the best of rivers, she says. This river, I love.’

Daughter Kore followed in her mother’s footsteps, watching, listening. She began to think, to explore the why of the way things were and the possibilities for changing them, working in with her companion dog. She saw that certain plants grew in certain places; she watched as the dog sampled their fruits. She learnt what was edible; she thought about what to do to make foods kind to the taste. San Roque had her holding her hands to her head, one to the left, one to the right – left and right brain engaged, she moved to wash in saltwater the bitter berries of the first olive tree. Soaking olives in brine: a recipe from the original hearth.


OUR PICNIC WAS waiting for us, laid out on tables covered with white cloths. Everything had been carried up the steep path to the quarry, in arms and on backs – the tables, the firewood and fire bins, the feast. Crusty brown loaves, oil for dipping, black and green olives, Mediterranean vegetables and fruits. But San Roque was also making us work (a little) for this supper. If at Alekarenge he asked the people, ‘What would it take to make a farm work?’, here he asked us, ‘What stands behind this food culture we so love?’ In setting the story on the damaged quarry site in Arrernte country, he made clear that it was about more than appreciating its drama and poetry.

The story was performed at Eleusis in Greece for two thousand years, its participants sworn to secrecy on pain of death. It was banned and the site destroyed in 396 AD by ‘fervent champions of a new religion’. If we listen to Arrernte people about their great losses, we can perhaps imagine the grief of the ancient Greeks. Today Eleusis is a broken site, says San Roque, ‘a memorial to loss’: ‘I have seen simple and broken places like this across the countries where old ceremonies were performed and lost. And artillery shells and madmen ruined their grace. Because of that ruin I wrote this story.’

Here, in the central Arrernte homeland, we too can see the sites where old ceremonies were performed and lost – sites like the quarry that are deeply scarred, others that are hemmed in, built upon, sometimes ruined. For those of European descent, perhaps a new awareness of our own long-lost countries and classical cultures could put us in the way of better seeing this history and hearing Arrernte and other Aboriginal stories embodied in the country, imagined in painting, song and dance.

But there was more. Alongside Demeter and Kore, at the edge of the quarry cliff we looked into the valley, possibly one of the most beautiful in the land despite all its scars – the marks of a system of land management, if you could call it that. The mountainous rubbish dump. The sewage ponds, relying on evaporation in the dry heart of the driest continent on earth. The railway and highway along which the food and most else that we rely on are ferried into town. The pale grass across the valley floor was dried-out buffel, an invasive species originally sown to suppress dust and provide pasture for cattle, now squeezing out native vegetation and elevating the fire risk to what remains. There was very little that reflected deep thought and care, very little that would sustain us if – no, when – times get tough. How far we have moved from minding the simplest of nature’s connections here in Alice, as in much of mainstream Australia and the developed world. We plug the gaps with technological know-how, but are starting to see how it is bringing the earth undone.

The sun sank into the blue and purple mountains in the west, its last long rays sweeping down the vivid rock face behind us. Having eaten our fill and as darkness gathered, we were called to the second part of the story-telling – Kore’s exploration of the connections between things, the fundamentals of sustenance.


KORE’S BELOVED DOG sampled a poisonous fungus and died, and so Kore came up against the ending that is part of all living things. In her grief she followed the dog into the underworld, where at the hands of Hades she discovered the roots of things, the seedbed, and thus the continuing of things. This was different again from the dominant version of the classical story, in which Hades was said to abduct and rape Kore after the Olympian gods had refused to allow him to marry her. San Roque says there are surviving fragments that reveal a different ancient version and he has chosen to pursue it: ‘There’s always another story.’ We can see, for instance, a radical adaptation – appropriation might be the better term – in the Christian story of the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, where the mother became an instrument of the father, and the son replaced the daughter. San Roque instead kept faith with women, with their loving generative power. He showed Kore’s travels in the subterranean realm as a sensual, thought-provoking exploration, out of which Kore emerged as ‘the one to teach the people’. Renamed by Hades as Persephone, meaning ‘wedded to destruction’, she would teach them how things were destroyed and made again, the cycle of life, including of life-giving plants. She carried that knowledge in her body and in her mind.

Above ground a bitter winter, perhaps even an ice age, was brought on by Demeter’s long lament for her lost daughter: ‘Demeter was walking. She walked north and south, she walked east and west, travelling, travelling, looking for Kore. And behind her the people walked, looking for food, hunting, looking for firewood, looking for fruit, anything; looking for any seeds to crush and roll into flour. Walking through countries where no birds sang.’

When (in the Ilparpa version) Hades named Persephone, he laid out a feast before her that included pomegranate, whose sweet seeds had first been given to her by Demeter. Tasting them again, Persephone remembered her mother, ‘the womb of the world’. This stirring of memory coincided with a softening of Demeter’s wrathful grief, touched as she was by the people’s suffering. The lands began to thaw. ‘Coming up by the rockhole in the morning, Persephone, water shining along the roots, water shining on the leaves of the tree, birds flickering. She comes up. “I can feel on my tongue, the taste of my mother, I am coming out,” she cried. “I am coming out…”’

This was spring, time of new life and renewal, time of harvest.

San Roque’s Persephone was no victim; she was curious, courageous, intuitive, intelligent, decisive and loving. At the quarry, Miriam Pickard in the role underlined these qualities when, undirected, she seized a flaming torch and lit her own way into the underworld, questing to understand the fate of her dog. A very contemporary Persephone. Some have objected, even if gently, to this departure from the dominant version of the story. However, Jules Cashford, translator for Penguin Classics of The Homeric Hymns, had a different response: ‘All it is,’ she wrote to San Roque from the UK after hearing of the performance of his text, ‘is one poet inspired by another poet, making a new original of the universal poem which is nature, and taking it forward so precisely that there is no longer rape, or protest, simply a girl who follows her dear dog into the underworld out of love. Is that not how consciousness grows?’

This applies too, I feel, to the other adaptations in the text, the echoes and hybridity that establish the resonance between the European and Australian classical cultures.

The gift of this picnic with Persephone was to put us imaginatively back in touch with ancient understandings of the earth – its what and how and why – and the ways humankind have worked with it. This was not to naively renounce twenty-first century science and technology, but to nourish a ‘re-enchantment’ with nature, as Freya Mathews puts it, which will help us reach for the techniques and technologies that are compatible with it. And who knows, perhaps then we will be ready for a true ‘meeting of minds’ with the people of Alekarenge, and perhaps then they might see a future for themselves in farming.


Note on sources

San Roque’s original poetic script, ‘The Kore Story/Persephone’s Dog’, is published in Ancient Greece, Modern Psyche: Archetypes Evolving, eds. Rutter, V.B. and T. Singer, Routledge, New York, 2015.

His other writings cited are: ‘A rebirth of tragedy’ in ed. Cameron, J., Changing places: re-imagining Australia, Longueville Books, Double Bay, NSW, 2003. ‘A long weekend in Alice Springs’ in eds. Singer, T & S. L. Kimbles, The cultural complex: contemporary Jungian perspectives on psyche and society, Routledge, New York, 2004.

Program notes for the performance of ‘Persephone’s Dog’, 26 September 2015.

Two essays by Freya Mathews are cited: ‘CERES: Singing up the city’, in PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, No. 1, 2000: 5-15.‘Introduction: invitation to ontopoetics’, in PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, No. 6, 2009: 1-6.

Thomas Stevens Peltharre’s quotes come from his book Damaging Our Dreaming Land, Yipirinya School Literacy Production Centre, Alice Springs, 1984.


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