Australia :: June '94 -- April '95

Subject: Dreamtime II
Date: October 26, 1994 01:26


16:50 Ipolera, Northern Territory :: 20 OCT 94

Through Chatwin I'll step back a little further, filling more gaps in the Dreamtime picture.


Arkady ordered a couple of cappuccinos in the coffee shop. We took them to a table by the window and he began to talk.
I was dazzled by the speed of his mind, although at times I felt he sounded like a man on a public platform.
The Aborigines had an earthbound philosophy. The earth gave life to a man; gave him his food, language and intelligence; and the earth took him back when he did. A man's 'own country', even an empty stretch of spinifex, was itself a sacred icon that must remain unscarred.
'Unscarred, you mean, by roads or mines or railways?'
'To wound the earth', he answered earnestly, 'is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched: as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang world into existence.'
. . .
The Aborigines, he went on, were a people who trod lightly over the earth; and the less they took from the earth, the less they had to give in return. They had never understood why the missionaries forbade their innocent sacrifices. They slaughtered no victims, animal or human. Instead they would simply slit a vein in their forearms and let their own blood splatter the ground.
'Not a very heavy price to pay,' he said. 'The wars of the twentieth century are the price for having taken too much.'
. . .
To get to grips with the concept of Dreamtime, he said, you had to understand it as an Aboriginal equivalent of the first two chapters of Genesis-with one significant difference.
In Genesis, God first created the 'living things' and then fashioned Father Adam from clay. Here in Australia, the Ancestors created themselves from clay, hundreds and thousands of them, one for each totemic species.
'So when an Aboriginal tells you, "I have a Wallaby Dreaming," he means, "My totem is Wallaby. I am a member of the Wallaby Clan."'
'So a Dreaming is a clan emblem? A badge to distinguish "us" from "them"? "Our country" from "their country?"'
'Much more than that,' he said.
Every Wallaby Man believed he was descended from a universal Wallaby Father, who was the ancestor of all other Wallaby Men and all living wallabies. Wallabies, therefore, were his brothers. To kill one for food was both fratricide and cannibalism.
'Yet,' I persisted, 'the man was no more wallaby than the British are lions, the Russians bears, or the Americans bald eagles?'
'Any species', he said 'can be a Dreaming. A virus can be a Dreaming. You can have a chickenpox Dreaming, a rain Dreaming, a desert-orange Dreaming, a louse Dreaming. In the Kimberleys they've now got a money Dreaming.'
. . .
He went on to explain how each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and how these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as 'ways' of communication between the most far-flung tribes.
'A song', he said, 'was both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across the country.'
'And would a man on "Walkabout" always be traveling down one of the Songlines?'
'In the old days, yes,' he agreed. 'Nowadays, they go by train or car.'
'Suppose the man strayed from his Songline?'
'He was trespassing. He might get speared for it.'
'But as long as he stuck to the track, he'd always find people who shared his Dreaming? Who were, in fact, his brothers?'
'Yes.'
'From whom he could expect hospitality?'
'And vice versa.'
'So song is a kind of passport and meal ticket?'
'Again, it's more complicated.'
In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualize the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every 'episode' was readable in terms of geology.
'By episode', I asked, 'you mean "sacred site"?'
'I do'
'The kind of site you're surveying for the railway?'
'Put it this way,' he said. 'Anywhere in the bush you can point to some feature of the landscape and asked the Aboriginal with you, "What's the story there?" or "Who's that?" The chances are he'll answer "Kangaroo" or "Budgerigar" or "Jew Lizard", depending on which Ancestor walked that way.
'And the distance between two such sites can be measured as a stretch of song?'
'That', said Arkady, 'is the cause of all my troubles with the railway people.'
It was one thing to persuade a surveyor that a heap of boulders were the eggs of the Rainbow Snake, or a lump of reddish sandstone was the liver of a speared kangaroo. It was something else to convince him that a featureless stretch of gravel was the musical equivalent of Beethoven's Opus III.
By singing the world into existence, he said, the Ancestors had been poets in the original sense of 'poesis', meaning 'creation'. No Aboriginal could conceive that the world was in any way imperfect. His religious life had a single aim: to keep the land the way it was and should be. The man who went 'Walkabout' was making a ritual journey. He trod the footprints of his Ancestor. He sang the Ancestor's stanzas without changing a word or note-and so recreated the creation.
'Sometimes,' said Arkady, 'I'll be driving my "old men" through the desert, and we'll come to a ridge of sandhills, and suddenly they'll all start singing. "What are you mob singing?" I'll ask, and they'll say, "Singing up the country, boss. Makes the country come up quicker."'
Aborigines could not believe the country existed until they could see and sing -just as, in Dreamtime, the country had not existed until the Ancestors sang it.
. . .
'Then I suppose these three hundred miles of steel slicing through innumerable songs, are bound to upset your "old men's" mental balance?'
'Yes and no,' he said. 'They're very tough, emotionally, and very pragmatic. Besides they've seen far worse than a railway.'
Aborigines believed that all 'living things' had been made in secret beneath the earth's crust, as well as all the white man's gear-his aeroplanes, his guns, his Toyota Land Cruisers-and every invention that will ever be invented; slumbering below the surface, waiting their turn to be called.
'Perhaps,' I suggested 'they could sing the railway back into the created world of God?'
'You bet,' said Arkady.
  graphical element Bruce Chatwin
The Songlines, [pp. 13-17]


Incidentally, Aboriginal women also have Dreamings -- Chatwin's a little misleading here. The story Pat told us at sunset yesterday of the Two Sisters is a woman's Dreaming. However, it's difficult to fault Chatwin for this seeming misogyny. Men's and Women's business in Aboriginal society is separate and secret. It's quite possible that women's songlines, ownership rituals and laws, etc., are quite different than the men's. It's unlikely that Chatwin would have gained much insight at all into women's songlines due to his own gender. I certainly can't shed any light on the subject.

So, an Aborigine's totem represents and is represented by a songline. Each Aboriginal inherits at birth a section of the Songline and becomes 'owner' of the land over which the Ancestor trods during that section. The owner of the land is also responsible for maintaining it in its original state. But there's more . . .


'I wish I understood this business of "ritual manager".' 'It's not easy.' The smoke from the fire blew in our faces but at least kept away the flies. I took out my notebook and propped it on my knee. The first step, Arkady said, was to get to grips with two more Aboriginal expressions: kirda and kutungurlu. Old Alan was kirda: that is to say, he was the 'owner' or 'boss' of the land we were going to survey. He was responsible for its upkeep, for making sure its songs were sung and its rituals performed on time. The man in blue, on the other hand, was Alan's kutungurlu, his 'manager' or 'helper'. He belonged to a different totemic clan and was a nephew-real or 'classificatory', that didn't matter-on Alan's mother's side of the family. The word kutungurlu itself meant 'uterine kin'. 'So the "manager"', I said, 'always has a different Dreaming to the boss?' 'He does.' Each enjoyed reciprocal rites in each other's country, and worked as a team to maintain them. The fact that 'boss' and 'manager' were seldom men of the same age meant that ritual knowledge went ricocheting down the generations. In the old days, Europeans believed the 'boss' was really 'boss' and the 'manager' some kind of sidekick. This, it turned out, was wishful thinking. Aborigines themselves sometimes translated kutungurlu as 'policeman'-which gave a far more accurate idea of the relationship. 'The "boss"', said Arkady, 'can hardly make a move without his "policeman's" permission. Take the case of Alan here. The nephew tells me they're both very worried the railway's going to destroy an important Dreaming site: the eternal resting place of a Lizard Ancestor. But it's up to him, not Alan, to decide if they should come along with us or not.' The magic of the system, he added, was that responsibility for land resides ultimately, not with the 'owner', but with a member of the neighbouring clan. 'And vice versa?' I asked. 'Of course.' 'Which would make war between neighbours rather difficult?' 'Checkmated,' he said. 'It'd be like America and Russia agreeing to swap their own internal politics --'
  graphical element Bruce Chatwin
The Songlines, [pp. 108-109]


Once again we have a social practice between neighbouring tribes that is shared among all neighbouring tribes in Australia. As if the idea of a songline stretching across tribal and language frontiers from one coast of the continent to the opposite weren't enough, we now have a land management scheme spanning the same gulfs.

How did such a 'global' system originate? What kind of explanation can account for the fact that these groups share similar laws and music but dispersed among them are between 200 and 400 distinct languages and these contain a further 600-800 dialects. How is it their songs and customs are the same and their languages different? How has such an intricate cosmogony interwoven amongst such a widely, no, remotely distributed network of peoples who do not share a common language?

Unless the songs and customs preceded language?

I'm on page 286 of Songlines, a book of 325 pages, and Chatwin has not yet entered this line of questioning. I don't get the feeling he will. Hmmmmm.

20:15 Alice Springs, Northern Territory :: 24 OCT 94

Just over four months have passed since this Canadian arrived in Australia and only now do I begin to unravel a little of the stingily protected Aboriginal mysteries. I had no idea the indigenous culture would be so complex, beautiful, strong, so fascinating. A wedding in Snap, Crackle and Pop's hometown calls me away, but I've already booked the return flight to Oz for the beginning of 1995. The idea then is to continue the original itinerary of New Zealand, SE Asia, Japan, LA and finally home, but I wonder if again I'll be sucked in by this place, by these people . . . I may be hooked.

Did you know that in Oz, the characters Snap, Crackle and Pop promote 'Rice Bubbles?'

Oh yeah. Call me a liar . . . Chatwin asks the question, "Why so many languages but a single musical language?"

In the passage below, Wendy is compiling a dictionary of Aboriginal names and uses for various bush plants.


She had never had a training in linguistics. Yet her work on dictionary had given her an interest in the myth of Babel. Why, when Aboriginal life had been so uniform, had there been 200 languages in Australia? Could you really explain this in terms of tribalism or isolation? Surely not! She was beginning to wonder whether language itself might not relate to the distribution of the different species over the land. 'Sometimes,' she said, 'I'll ask Old Alex to name a plant and he'll answer "No name", meaning, "The plant doesn't grow in my country".' She'd then look for an informant who had, as a child, lived where the plant grew-and find it did have a name after all. The 'dry heart' of Australia, she said, was a jigsaw of microclimates, of different minerals in the soil and different plants and animals. A man raised in one part of the desert would know its flora and fauna backwards. He knew which plant attracted game. He knew his water. He knew where there where tubers underground. In other words, by naming all the 'things' in his territory, he could always count on survival. 'But if you took him blindfold to another country,' she said, 'he might end up lost and starving.' 'Because he'd lost his bearings?' 'Yes.' 'You're saying that man "makes" his territory by naming the "things" in it?' 'Yes, I am!' Her face lit up. 'So the basis for a universal language can never have existed?' 'Yes. Yes.' Wendy said that, even today, when an Aboriginal mother notices the first stirrings of speech in her child, she lets it handle the 'things' of that particular country: leaves, fruit, insects and so forth. The child, at its mothers breast, will toy with the 'thing', talk to it, test its teeth on it, learn its name, repeat its name-and finally chuck it aside. 'We give our children guns and computer games,' Wendy said. 'They gave their children the land.'
  graphical element Bruce Chatwin
The Songlines, [pp. 300-301]


Despite the earnest plea for a better educational environment for our youth, this hardly yields an adequate expedition into the problem. Why, if there is no basis for a universal spoken language, is there a universal musical language? What is its basis? If plants and land configurations change so frequently and dramatically what is the basis of the musical vocabulary that allows a man to recognize the 'tune' of a songline even when the section being played represents a land far removed, and perhaps entirely alien in flora, fauna and geology?

In other sections of the book Chatwin explores the theme of instinct in homosapiens at length but with only tangential reference to his central concern of the songlines. He leaves the conjunction of musical language and instinct open but he draws no conclusions from the excursion into such an important aspect of human behaviour.

At one point Chatwin also flings out the possibility that musical language precedes spoken language, but this occurs earlier in the book and he never refers to this interesting possibility again.

IToo bad. I'd be interested in his thoughts.


A tjuringa-it is worthwhile repeating-is an oval plaque made of stone or mulga wood. It is both musical score and mythological guide to the Ancestor's travels. It is the actual body of the Ancestor (pars pro toto). It is a man's alter ego; his soul; his obol to Charon; his title deed to the country; his passport and his ticket 'back in'. Ted Strehlow[, who spent 40 years documenting the secret ceremonies of the Aranda people in Central Australia] gives a harrowing account of some Elders who discover their tjuringa storehouse has been raided by white men-and for whom this is the world. He gives a joyful description of some other old men who have lent their tjuringas to the neighbours for a number of years and who, when they unwrap them on their return, break into a peal of happy song. I have also read an account of how, when a song cycle was sung in its entirety, the 'owners' would lay out their tjuringas end to end, in order, like the order of sleeping cars on the Train Bleu. On the other hand, if you smashed or lost your tjuringa, you were beyond the human pale, and had lost all hope of 'returning'. Of one young layabout in Alice, I heard it said, 'He hasn't seen his tjuringa. He don't know who he is.'
  graphical element Bruce Chatwin
The Songlines, [pp. 318-319]


Totemism, Patriotism, Fan(aticism), 'brand loyalty.' Different strands from the same theme. We define who we are by what we identify with whether it be an Ancestor, The American Way or our favorite ball team.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.
  graphical element Pascal, Pensees

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