Australia :: June '94 -- April '95

Subject: Dreamtime I
Date: October 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 on canvas.

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 Q.
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 all about.

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 song.
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'.
  graphical element Aboriginal creation myth
as described by Bruce Chatwin in his book
The Songlines, 1987 [pp. 80-82]

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 lifetime commitments.

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 Chatwin.

. . . [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 the stars.'
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?'
'Most likely.'
'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?'
'It is.'
'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 possibility.
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 was.
'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.'
  graphical element Bruce Chatwin
The Songlines, 1987 [pp. 116-120]

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 boundaries.

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 chucking.

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 sunset.

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 happened.

Continued in Dreamtime II

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.

  graphical element Pascal, Pensees