26, 1994 01:27
Katrin and I walk through the loose red sand along the roadside seeking
the perfect view point of Uluru at sunset. We find the right spot and,
while the camcorder converts photons to electrons and electrons to magnetic
impulses on plastic tape, we try to interpret the animal tracks in the
sand. The evidence of bird, lizard and wallaby
passage leaves patterns and designs and we are both reminded of the Aboriginal
'Dot' paintings, as culturally definitive as the West Coast Indian art
in Canada. A few passages leave behind serpentine trails in the smooth
surface; Where dozens of animals pass they dimple the sand with dot patterns.
In his book 'The
Songlines', Bruce Chatwin traces the
Aboriginal history of this relationship between traces in sand and acrylic
Even in captivity, Pintupi mothers, like good mothers everywhere,
tell stories to their children about the origin of animals: How the Echidna
got its spines . . . Why the Emu cannot fly . . . Why the Crow is glossy
black . . And as Kipling illustrated the 'Just So Stories' with his own
line drawings, so the Aboriginal mother makes drawings in the sand to
illustrate the wanderings the Dreamtime heroes.
She tells her tale in a patter of staccato bursts and, at the
same time, traces the Ancestor's 'footprints' by running her first and
second fingers, one after the other, in a double dotted line along the
ground. She erases each scene with the palm of her hand and, finally,
makes a circle with a line passing through it-something like a capital
This marks the spot where the Ancestor, exhausted by the labours
of Creation, has gone 'back in'.
The sand drawings done for children are but sketches or 'open
versions' of real drawings representing the real Ancestors, which
are only done at secret ceremonies and must only be seen by initiates.
All the same, it is through the 'sketches' that the young learn to orient
themselves to their land, its mythology and resources.
Some years ago, when the violence and drunkenness [within the
Pintupi community] threatened to get out of hand, a white adviser hit
on the idea of supplying the Pintupi with artists' materials and getting
them to transfer their Dreamings canvas.
The result was an instant, Australian school of abstract painting.
Reading this passage back to myself I notice that it requires some additional
explanations: what is the 'Dreamtime,' what are 'Dreamings,' who are the
Ancestors and what is the significance of their travels? With the further
aid of Bruce Chatwin, I will draw a children's sketch in the sand for
you. A fuller explanation would require a volume or full text. It would
also require of the author an intimate understanding of 'secret' Aboriginal
knowledge. To begin with, we WhiteFellas are but children to the Aborigines
so they will only tell us children's stories. Even those few who prove
themselves worthy and gain intricate access to the secrets generally respect
the secrecy. The Aboriginal penalty for those who reveal secrets to the
uninitiated is death.
So we must be satisfied with what little insight we can muster and start
from the beginning. The beginning, after all, is what the Dreamtime is
12:37 Kings Canyon NP, Northern Territory :: 18 OCT 94
In The Beginning
In the Beginning the Earth was an infinite and murky plain,
separated from the sky and from the grey salt sea and smothered in a shadowy
twilight. There were neither Sun nor Moon nor Stars. Yet, far away, lived
the Sky-dwellers: youthfully indifferent beings, human in form but with
the feet of emus, their golden hair glittering like spiders' webs in the
sunset, ageless and unageing, having existed for ever in their green,
well-watered Paradise beyond the Western Clouds.
On the surface of the Earth, the only features were certain
hollows which would, one day, be waterholes. There were no animals and
no plants, yet clustered round the waterholes there were pulpy masses
of matter: lumps of primordial soup-soundless, sightless, unbreathing,
unaware and unsleeping-each containing the essence of life, or the possibility
of becoming human.
Beneath the Earth's crust, however, the constellations glimmered,
the Sun shone, the Moon waxed and waned, and all forms of life lay sleeping:
the scarlet of a desert-pea, the iridescence on a butterfly's wing, the
twitching white whiskers of Old Man Kangaroo- dormant as seeds in the
desert that must wait for a wandering shower.
On the morning of the First Day, the Sun felt the urge to be
born. (That evening the Stars and Moon would follow.) The Sun burst through
the surface, flooding the land with golden light, warming the hollows
under which each Ancestor lay sleeping.
Unlike the Sky-dwellers, these Ancients had never been young.
They were lame, exhausted greybeards with knotted limbs, and they had
slept in isolation through the ages.
So it was, on this First Morning, that each drowsing Ancestor
felt the Sun's warmth pressing on his eyelids, and felt his body giving
birth to children. The Snake Man felt snakes slithering out of his navel.
The Cockatoo man felt feathers. The Witchetty Grub Man felt a wriggling,
the Honey-ant a tickling, the Honeysuckle felt his leaves and flowers
unfurling. The Bandicoot Man felt baby bandicoots seething from under
his armpits. Every one of the 'living things', each in its own separate
birthplace, reached up for the light of day.
In the bottom of their hollows (now filling up with water),
the Ancients shifted one leg, then another leg. They shook their shoulders
and flexed their arms. They heaved their bodies upward through the mud.
Their eyelids cracked open. They saw their children at play in the sunshine.
The mud fell from their thighs, like placenta from a baby. Then,
like the baby's cry, each Ancestor opened his mouth and called out, 'I
AM!' 'I am - Snake . . . Cockatoo . . . Honey-ant . . . Honeysuckle .
. .' And this first 'I am!', this primordial act of naming, was held,
then and forever after, as the most secret and sacred couplet of the Ancestor's
Each of the Ancients (now basking in the sunlight) put his left
foot forward and called out a second name. He put his right foot forward
and called out a third name. He named the waterhole, the reedbeds, the
gum trees-calling right and left, calling all things into being and weaving
their names into verses.
The Ancients sang their way all over the world. They sang the
rivers and ranges, salt-pans and sand dunes. They hunted, ate, made love,
danced, killed: wherever their track lead they left a trail of music.
They wrapped the whole world in a web of song; and at last,
when the Earth was sung, they felt tired. Again in their limbs they felt
the frozen immobility of Ages. Some sank into the ground where they stood.
Some crawled into caves. Some crept away to their 'Eternal Homes', to
the ancestral waterholes that bore them.
All of them went 'back in'.
The Dreamtime is the time of the Ancestors before they went 'back in'.
Be careful to note that this includes the act of creation itself, that
is, Dreamtime is the time leading up to and culminating in human existence.
'Dreaming' is somewhat more difficult to define. To begin with, the term,
'dream' represents an out of context Anglicization of Aboriginal concepts;
forget about REM sleep while trying to understand it. Further, 'Dreaming'
has several different applications. An Aborigines' totem is called his
'Dreaming'. Also, the Ancestors' songs of creation are kept in the memories
of the Aborigines, each individual inheriting at birth a few 'bars' of
all creation so that the whole song perpetuates. These sections of song
are termed 'Dreamings'. There are others, but I understand them less than
these two for which I have already risked misinterpretation through phrasing
my inadequate understanding.
When an Aboriginal inherits a Dreaming, they inherit also the land created
by song, not in the sense of personal property as we think of it but as
a responsibility to maintain the land in the form the Ancestors sang it
into existence in the Dreamtime. Songs can be
shared, borrowed or lent but not sold or otherwise got rid of; they are
Also, since the Ancestors created all the land through song, and they
walked while they sang, the Aborigines maintain a roadmap of the entire
continent in song. You can get anywhere in Australia, know the waterholes
and hunting-grounds along the way, if you learn the right songs. Apparently,
an Aboriginal gone 'Walkabout' was doing just that, learning songs by
traveling to the end of the song lines he knew and asking whoever he found
at the end who could teach him the next few bars and whether he would
have permission to sing them, to walk to the end of the new verse.
19:04 Kings Canyon NP, Northern Territory :: 18 OCT 94
A few notes for this passage from Chatwin's The
Songlines: Arkady helps the railway determine a path through
the country side between Alice Springs and Darwin that will not cross
over or near any Aboriginal Sacred Sites-a tall order. The 'I' is Bruce
. . . [the Pintupi man in blue] got to his feet and began to
mime (with words of pidgin thrown in) the travels of the Lizard Ancestor.
It was a song of how the lizard and his lovely young wife had
walked from northern Australia to the Southern Sea, and of how a southerner
had seduced his wife and sent him home with a substitute.
. . .
[At the end of the story, the man in blue] waved towards the
hill and, with the triumphant cadence of someone who has told the best
of all possible stories, shouted: 'That . . . that is where he is!'
. . .
What we had witnessed . . . was not of course the real Lizard
song, but a 'false front', or sketch performed for strangers. The real
song would have named each waterhole the Lizard Man drank from, each tree
he cut a spear from, each cave he slept in, covering the whole long distance
of the way.
[Arkady] understood the pidgin far better than I. [With his
help] this is the version . . . I jotted down:
The Lizard and his wife set off to walk to the Southern Sea.
The wife was young and beautiful and had far lighter skin than her husband.
They crossed swamps and rivers until they stopped at a hill-[this hill]-and
there they slept the night. In the morning they passed the camp of some
Dingoes, where a mother was suckling a brood of pups. 'Ha!' said the
Lizard, 'I'll remember those pups and eat them later.'
The couple walked on, past Oodnadatta, past Lake Eyre, and
came to the sea at Port Augusta. A sharp wind was blowing off the sea,
and the Lizard felt cold and began to shiver. He saw, on a headland
nearby, the campfire of some Southerners, and said to his wife, 'Go
over to those people and borrow a firestick.'
She went. But one of the Southerners, lusting after her lighter
skin, made love to her-and she agreed to stay with him. He made his
own wife paler by smearing her from head to foot with yellow ochre and
sent her, with the firestick, to the solitary traveler. Only when the
ochre rubbed off did the Lizard realize his loss. He stamped his feet.
He puffed himself up in fury, but, being a stranger in a distant country,
he was powerless to take revenge. Miserably, he turned for home with
his uglier, substitute wife. On the way he stopped to kill and eat the
Dingo puppies but these gave him indigestion and made him sick. On reaching
[this hill] he lay down and died . . .
And [this hill], as the man in blue told us, was where he was.
Arkady and I sat mulling over this story of an antipodean Helen.
The distance from here to Port Augusta, as the crow flew, was roughly
1,100 miles, about twice the distance-so we calculated from Troy to Ithaca.
We tried to imagine an Odyssey with a verse for every twist and turn of
the hero's ten-year voyage.
I looked at the Milky Way and said, 'You might as well count
Most tribes, Arkady went on, spoke the language of their immediate
neighbor, so the difficulties of communication across a frontier did not
exist. The mystery was how a man from Tribe A, living up one end of a
Songline, could hear a few bars sung by Tribe Q and, without knowing a
word of Q's language, would know exactly what land was being sung.
'Christ!' I said. 'Are you telling me that Old Alan here would
know the songs for a country a thousand miles away?'
'Without ever having been there?'
One or two ethnomusicologists, he said, had been working on
the problem. In the meantime, the best thing was to imagine a little experiment
of our own.
Supposing we found, somewhere near Port Augusta, a song-man
who knew the Lizard song? Suppose we got him to sing his verses into a
tape-recorder and then played the tape to Alan in Kaititj country? The
chances were he'd recognize the melody at once-just as we would the 'Moonlight'
Sonata-but the meaning of the words would escape him. All the same, he'd
listen very attentively to the melodic structure. He'd perhaps even ask
us to replay a few bars. Then, suddenly, he'd find himself in sync and
be able to sing his own words over the 'nonsense'.
His own words for country round Port Augusta?'
'Yes,' said Arkady.
'Is that what really happens?'
'How the hell's it done?'
No one, he said, could be sure. There were people who argued
for telepathy. Aborigines themselves told stories of their song men whizzing
up and down the line in trance. But there was another, more astonishing
Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the
song described the nature the land over which the song passes. So, if
the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the salt-pans of Lake Eyre,
you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin's 'Funeral March'.
If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnel escarpments, you'd have
a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsodies'.
Certain phrases, certain combinations musical notes, are thought
to describe the action of the Ancestor's feet. One phrase would
say, 'Salt-pan'; another 'Creek-bed', 'Spinifex', 'Sand-hill', 'Mulga-scrub',
'Rock-face' and so forth. An expert song-man, by listening to their order
of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or
scaled a ridge-and be able to calculate where, and how far along, a Songline
'He'd be able', said Arkady 'to hear a few bars and say, "This
is Middle Bore" or "That is Oodnadatta"-where the Ancestor
did X or Y or Z.
'So a musical phrase', I said, 'is a map reference?'
'Music', said Arkady, 'is a memory bank for finding one's way
about the world.'
So the Dreamtime has more significance than just another creation myth.
It's stories, that is its songs, do for the nomadic Aboriginal what Rand-McNally
has done for the retired RV crowd. Better than that because few of us
possess photographic memories while most can call up the melodies of a
song after hearing it just once; music provides an easily recalled medium
for information storage, and one that is easily taught as well.
20:02 Watarraka NP (Kings Canyon), Northern Territory :: 19 OCT 94
This evening Katrin and I took a guided sunset viewing tour of Kings
Canyon. The tour company, Kurkara, is not just the only Aboriginal owned
and operated company providing guided walks and cultural tours in the
park, it is also the only tour operation working wholly within the park
While driving to the viewing site our Aboriginal guide, a long-haired,
easy-going type named Pat of all things, began giving us the usual 'cultural'
information concerning bush plants, animals and tucker (food), the making
and use of tools and weapons. At the base of the small hill that would
be our view point, Kurkara had constructed a few traditional dwellings
and wind breaks. Here he talked a little about the separation of Men's
Business and Women's Business and a bit about the Aboriginal method of
match-making (basically, initiated young men are lined up face down on
the ground; potential mother's in law carrying 80 cm long sticks of mulga
wood choose a mate for their daughter by bashing the lucky young man on
the back with the stick; the more popular males may be chosen by several
mothers in law in which case he can choose from the offers- if he's still
alive ;-). Once a match is made, the male can never look at or speak to
his in-laws again for the rest of his life.) Finally, Pat showed us some
spears and a woomera or throwing stick and demonstrated the art of spear
We'd been on a couple such excursions providing similar or even duplicate
information. I may have even embarrassed an Aboriginal by bettering his
spear-throwing accuracy. It was luck since I paid heed only to the mechanics
of launching the spear, not the probable resting place. Anyway, at this
point in this particular tour I'd begun to look forward to getting a few
photographs and shoot some tape of what promised to be a pretty decent
Since the sun was setting quickly, I declined another opportunity to
embarrass a guide and we were soon on our way up the short incline to
the hilltop. The sunset was good. Pat showed us some seeds used in bush
tucker. The sunset got better. Pat began telling the story of two sisters
of the seven Pleiades.
This story is a songline stretching across the continent from the coast
of Western Australia to the tip of Far Northern Queensland. Pat told of
the two sister's journey through this region of land and pointed out several
significant landmarks appearing in the story. Then he told a little of
the story from Far Northern Queensland since a local from there had shared
that part of the songline with him. He went on to explain a little about
Dreamtime and about how the stories of the travails of the Ancestors have
been kept in song.
"These stories are songs and every song traces the travels of an
Ancestor," he said. "Each is a roadmap for the country the Ancestor
passed through. There are 200 Aboriginal languages and 600 dialects and
these stories cross many language barriers but the 'taste' of the song,
its melody and/or rhythm remain intact across all these barriers. This
means the Two Sisters song sung by the Western Australian, the Central
Australian and the Far Northern Queenslander are all recognizably the
same song even though the lyrics are sung in an incomprehensible language.
The important language is the music itself since each beat or note might
define a landmark such as a river, water hole or a forest."
Earlier this afternoon I'd begun to wonder how much Bruce Chatwin had
been exercising his 'artistic license.' That a songline could traverse
a body of land only marginally smaller than Canada essentially connecting
all the clans, tribes and language groups it crossed seemed just a tad
farfetched. That the laws for perpetuating these songs and for properly
maintaining the land they described spanned all the Aboriginal
groups in Australia stuck in my throat. I'd just about lost faith in Chatwin's
worthiness when I realized that even the musical symbolisms used to define
landmarks must also uniformly span the continent (how else could a songmaster
hear a song and know the lay of the land? But in the span of a few moments
while the sun set in the west and the full moon rose in the east, a half-caste
Aboriginal laid any concerns for authenticity to rest.
Not that I understand how such a sophisticated system can be possible
on such a broad scale and across so many frontiers, but apparently it
Continued in Dreamtime II
-- Responses Sought --
Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.
book chapter summaries
03 Oct 2010, 20:51
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