Australia’s landscapes are as much cultural as natural. People were once everywhere, affecting everything, across the length and breadth of the continent over an unimaginable timescale, confirmed in 2017 at an archaeological dig on our northern frontline at some 65,000 years ago. That’s the conclusion of historian Billy Griffiths in his acclaimed history of Australian archaeology, Deep Time Dreaming.
This primal Indigenous spiritual power is still evident in the country’s remote places. In 2018, I rock hopped for two weeks along the Roe River and scaled the blood-red gorges of the Prince Regent National Park on the western edge of the Kimberley. At every one of the waterfalls punctuating our progress, rock art shelters crowded with ancestral beings and creation stories overlooked the dark, deep green of secret/sacred pools. On gorge tops, artificially-placed standing stones act as markers, sometimes leading to ceremonial grounds, where, if you are willing to pay attention, the ancient power of the land and its people remains palpable.
I agree with writer Richard Flanagan, who said at the Yolngu people’s Garma Festival, we are at a crossroads as a nation. “The world is being undone before us… Our bewilderment with the greater world we live in is buttressed by our determined ignorance of our own country.” If Australians do not reimagine and reinvent our culture, then we will be undone too. We must fill the silent spaces of the past and acknowledge a far older and richer culture than the Western civilisation brought to Australia by the British.
Where the Western tradition regards land as something that can be bought and sold, Indigenous people have a much more intimate, reciprocal relationship. As animists, Indigenous people right around the globe, regard themselves as the land’s custodians not its owners. Yuval Noah Harari describes in Sapiens how such custodianship brings with it responsibilities to care for and cherish their patch and everything that is part of it.
Each child is given a totem – a plant, animal or natural object – that links him or her to the natural world. Totems act as guides. They have to be shown respect and actively nurtured to ensure continued fecundity of plants and animals and a world that is healthy and alive.
Animating the landscape is done through ceremony. To the animist, everything has awareness and feelings. No distinction exists between humans and animals or even mountains and gullies, beaches or the sea. That rock at the top of the hill, the trees that clothe it, that flowing stream, the animals that drink there – all are living things with souls. Singing, dancing and painting act as the medium for linking people to the natural world and keeping it alive. Every totem, every place, every insect, has a creation story attached to it. Strung together, the creation stories form songlines. Each person who develops the abilities to sing, dance and paint the patterns of their songline gains a source of identity, power and a comprehensive map and archive of all that their landscape contains. The wild honey bee songline might climax by pointing to a sacred site where honey spills out, emerging as a freshwater spring. The parrotfish songline tells you where they can be caught and how to cook them. In the dry hot season, two sisters who became stars sit far apart. In the cooler months, they can be seen together, sitting around one big fire.
In the Memory Code, author Lyn Kelly highlights how oral cultures discovered that the best way to avoid Chinese whispers and to pass on knowledge unerringly over generation after generation is by attaching vivid stories to specific features of place. Whether it’s via the uniquely distinctive menhirs in the circles at Stonehenge or the sinuous line of rocks depicting the Rainbow Serpent on a sacred Aboriginal performance space.
In Australia, the First Nation’s peoples most sacred and profound beliefs centre on the Dreaming. At the dawn of creation, it was the ancestor beings – some human, some beast – who brought what was previously barren land to life. As they journeyed, the ancestor beings sang about their experiences and the creatures they encountered, giving out names and passing on knowledge, much of it essential to survival. At the end of their journeys across land and sea, the ancestor beings left aspects of themselves behind transformed into part of the landscape.
So, Aboriginal stories and songlines are written on land and sea. As aide memoires, they are rooted in place, set in rhyming couplets or quatrain form, aligned to particular songs and dance movements, and to patterns painted in rock art shelters or on performers’ bodies. It’s a brilliant system for connecting people to place, as well as providing a map of how to live.
Over 20 years from 1932, T.G.H. Strehlow journeyed through Central Australia collecting 4,270 Aranda song verses. While he had immersed himself in the study of the founding legends of Western civilisation at European universities, he eventually concluded that the Aboriginal songlines represented a far more impressive poetic achievement. Moreover, when regularly performed, they held “a vital function in daily life.”
Clearly, we cannot appropriate Aboriginal songlines. We can, however, go further than simply acknowledging their culture. We could learn from their 65,000 years of honing their land management skills and move to adopt animist aspects of their culture, aiming to enrich the shallowness of the existing dominant Anglo-Australian culture.
A Yolngu elder once arrestingly remarked to me that all they ever heard from the “dominant culture” was “white on black.”
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“The politicians and most white people are always quick to tell us how we should change and improve ourselves. Don’t you think it’s time the dominant culture acknowledged their destructive footprint and turned in our direction for some black on white?”