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Memoir

Child

DAWN IS RISING in a pink and grey shriek of galahs. Child, already out of close warmth of swag, tugs my hand. Campfire needs stoking but in the shiver of morning there is something more urgent. Five hours' drive the day before and we camped behind this ridge, a stand of she-oak nearby promising firewood, rare in desert country, a necessity after sundown. Raised on the muster of sheep and cattle and boiling the billy on open fire, I showed Child the way my mother had shown me to collect sticks, watching for spider and centipede, scorpion in this country; showed Child my father's way of bringing match to twig using the wind as breath. Nestling into earth, we linked pinkie fingers and swore to be at the top of ridge for dawn.

Child's hand soft in mine, we zig-zag between tussocks of spinifex, our tracks adding to those of bird and lizard imprinted in sand. The air is sweet. A swipe of gold hangs in the sky, horizon turning zesty green. Climbing over the lip of ridge, country beyond opens out and there, as close as a heartbeat, is The Rock. We stand still, silent, sun warming us to earth. Child tugs my hand again. In a voice pure as birdsong he asks, 'Mum, is Uluru the heart of the world?'

Child is not the first, nor will he be the last, to sense the livingness in rock and mountain, in ocean and waterway, in dance of fire and whirl of wind, in sway of grasses across skin of flat land. The evolving formations, as with our own crawl out of the wet to stand up two-legged, is the stuff of story – Big Story – story some call myth.

 

WHEN CHILD OBSERVED Uluru beating as the heart of an even larger entity – the world – he was speaking from a story place to make sense of what he saw. This is the language of myth, a language carried in our human DNA, coded to see land and its inhabitants as one living system. As a blue-eyed blond boy, his own indigenous heritage is of another country, generations back in the shadowland of ancestry half a globe from where we stand. His storyline didn't survive the voyage to Australia. In his childhood, marauding Vikings in longboats inspired party costumes and schoolyard brawls, but were never much more than this.

Five generations ago, my family left the yule tree with its seven heavenly worlds above and seven underworlds below, deep in the verdant green forest. What they did not predict was the spiritual expense of severing their storyline. My childhood was cradled in a grass castle on a large holding in a country cleared and fenced in square miles. There was something missing. My ancestors owned this land, ran sheep and cattle on it, conquered and cultivated it. The memory of land owning its people was left behind. This flat-breasted land was an unfamiliar mother. Troubles had made my people want to forget they missed the rolling hills and their gods. They had moved beyond the Great Dividing Range. Mulga and water-guzzling gums were bulldozed. None of this scrub was sacred to a newcomer. There was not a yule in sight.

Shade was hard to find. The ancient stories from the old country seeped from the souls of my ancestors. Questions were left hanging on the Hill's Hoist. Time for contemplating answers was turned to toil, eyes fixed on one step in front of the next, walking towards a safe future in a land that could dry up your dreams and turn your flesh to salt.

My mother craved a cosy of green exotics around the homestead to buffer the ever ever brown. Our dam leaked. Artesian bore water was piped in. Abundant in minerals, it 'turned up the toes', my mother said, of her roses and sweet peas, her fruit trees and vegetables. Only tough and spiky succulents survived in these conditions. Her eyes turned to the sky looking for rain, to messenger bird, to willy wagtail and blue wren as well as the overarching wedgetail, keeping us in eagle eye. My mother taught me to observe. I lay on earth staring up at clouds or stars, or fossicked beyond the garden fence and poked and picked up things.

There is an indelible influence that is Aboriginal in my life. Connection to nature is in my genes, but here in new country, wandering further from home, stones with sharp edges that another hand once held, thrilled me. A sense that others had lived here grew when I rode my horse to distant timber and sank into sand hollow and heard voices whispering in trees. I knew no language for this. There was no need for one.

 

AT BOARDING SCHOOL, science became my favourite. It was another way of seeing. It spoke of things as if they could be separated from one another. It was a way of hiding in detail, without needing to make sense of the whole. But science never quite quenched my thirst for something more than fact, something bigger, nor did it provide me a language to speak about my world. Science filled me up with information and left me bereft of knowing.

At eighteen I was an exchange student in the 'armpit of America'. Living in Wall Street's bedroom suburb a twenty-minute train ride from Manhattan, the bush girl fell away fast. I'd been carefully placed with a family that seemed to have similar values. Chatham was an all-white town next to the rioting black city, Newark, New Jersey. Our class was studying the poetry of African-American Rock. An African-American teacher was invited in from a neighbouring university. A question was asked. I shot my hand up to answer and was chosen and gave my answer. The teacher stopped, silent, looked at me.

'And where might that accent come from?' she drawled.

'Australia,' I beamed, coming to you from across the Pacific on the sheep's back.

'Oh.' Long pause. 'Isn't that one step away from coming from South Africa?'

South Africa? South Africa was apartheid. I had already marched the streets of Brisbane protesting this crime. This teacher was claiming I came from a country like that.

 

MY RETURN HOME to our dinner table in the dry land was uneasy. I began to ask questions. Drove into town and visited those from the other side. I spoke with black people. The awkwardness grew like an abscess, without voice, perhaps cancerous. None of us in my home town had a way of speaking of the atrocities of children buried in sand, their heads kicked in, or shootings within earshot of the picnic races. Our history sticks hard. My gut, stripped of the grooming that Big Story might have given, made wrong-doing mean we were wrong people, bad people, hellish.

Where are the stories of Vishnu teaching Arjuna of human darkness on the battlefield? With our Big Stories, our own Bhagavad Gita faint memory, how can the pain of massacre be acknowledged in the hearts of those that live on? How can guilt give way to greater good? Brave and few are those that can stand naked of their weapons and say, 'I am sorry. We did wrong.' And braver are those that can receive this apology into sorry hearts and stand taller, flanked by their Creator spirits who predicted this wrongdoing long before the white man came. These Creators also had their destroying time. The giant taipan and python did their damage. But their stories are told by their people, generation after generation, claimed and owned.

Stories of the massacres in my homeland are still stuck in our throats, breeding generations of rock-hard hearts carved out of unexpressed shame. We don't have a way of telling and so we don't have a way to stand with dignity on the land we walk.

My white heritage became the foreign country. I am not Aboriginal, yet the elders' stories laid tracks for me to find my way. Floundering around for traditional dress that could be mine, I went along with the obvious. I believed my surname, McDonald, was Scottish. Tartan mini skirts and The Bay City Rollers sang me through the swill of my teens. But it was Aboriginal stories that were the first to sail me home.

 

BOB RANDALL'S VOICE is made from quiet space. His face glows with his years, perhaps eighty-four of them, he has no record other than a faded newspaper article of when he was taken from his family at eight. At eight I was in boarding school. Nothing compares to being wrenched from the arms of your mother, but something about going solo in institutions crammed with other children, something of the sadness of this, is in the hugs we share. When Bob's kindness reaches for you, it soothes the scars from years of separation.

Bob found his way back home to his Yankunytjatjara elders, re-uniting with his Uluru. He wakes each morning with his woman, Uluru, next to him.

'I open my eyes and she is there,' he smiles.

'So, Uluru is female?' I ask.

'She is whatever she is for you,' he says. 'The Rock is what it is for you.'

Bob calls me 'baby' when we meet. His Creator spirits sit with him.
I hold no stories of big rocks in central desert. I sit with a void in my heart and listen.

Bob wrote in Songman (ABC Books, 2003):'The Dreamtime, the Tjukurrpa, has nothing to do with dreaming. It is much bigger than that. It is our reality. The Creation period is not something that just existed in the past. To us it is also part of the present and will continue to exist in the future. When I look at a certain rock, it is not just a rock, it is my link to Tjukurrpa and all the stories of Creation that exist in that rock. Within a grain of sand I see me and the universe. I am part of the whole of Tjukurrpa. It is the same when I hear the song of a bird or find the tracks of an animal. When I tell Tjukurrpa Stories or sing the songs, I too am part of the past, present and future of all Creation. Caring for the land by telling the stories, singing the songs and doing the dances and paintings is my responsibility. Separating me from that makes me weak.'

The first time I stayed in Bob's home beside The Rock, we walked across sand hills east of Uluru before sunrise. There was no talking. Child was not there tugging me out of sleep. It was my responsibility to be up and ready waiting outside.

Bob held my hand while dark was still close. Tilted his head towards animal tracks on red earth – goanna, snake, pigeon. We climbed to the top of a drift and stood, mountain of rock at our backs, open horizon in every other direction. Waiting.

The first ray of light speared over the horizon. Bob began to gesture in each direction. I followed, listening to the whispered words of dedication to north, south, east and west as we turned. We stood at the centre of all to welcome Sun to Earth, understood by Yankunytjatjara to be two sisters. We stood to begin the day connected to the centre of Milky Way and to grain of sand beneath our feet. We stood within the circle of all horizons, at the point where seven directions meet, ready, in the way of the spiritual warrior of all traditions.

Walking home, daylight unveiled the cluster of corrugated iron lean-tos and the daily run-a-round on the fringe. Up ahead, Uluru kept the beat of a deeper rhythm. In all its chaos and variety, life was in order within the greater story of earth welcoming her sister sun home after the long night.

Bob looked out across the low scrub to the tourist buses that had arrived at the bitumened sunrise viewing platform several kilometres away. Helicopters circled overhead for those who wanted higher.

'Ceremony time,' he said. I thought he was being cynical and meant the buses and choppers. He didn't. In the bushland between our sand hill and the other, there was movement of feet. Anangu elders were gathering for important ceremony. To my unschooled eye there was nothing seen or heard. And yet walking pathways in the footsteps of their ancestors, those used to making themselves unseen continued a ceremony of secret business as it has been repeated for generations.

For Anangu, The Rock is not one place, but many. Each turn of the nine kilometre circumference is marked by its own story, its own teaching, its own ceremonies to be continued. Within the folds of rock are places that can only be visited by certain people and often only at special times. These 'secret-sacred' places are not to be viewed by others even from the distance of a car window.

Standing at the top of sand ridge, witness to the dawn awakening of The Rock invites story-making. Elders say we can re-dream our heritage, nothing is forever lost. Uluru is new born each morning, humming in the present, though time has weathered surface shale to flaky, old skin, making flesh of rock and silence breathe. The surrounding flatlands, remembering their oceanic past, rise and fall in wave motion; remnant shell holds sound of long-gone sea; fish bone rides shifting dune, rippled like the roof of mouth. This place is earth and air, solid rock and open space. There is fire crossing its horizons and precious water pooled in dark places. Science says erosion etched the harsh lines across the smooth rock. The old people say these are scars from the Creation, from the battle zone of those who go before, giant ancestral beings. Both these are stories. Uluru invited me into my own.

 

MY FATHER WENT back to Ireland once, back to the soil that held the footsteps of his ancestors. I was there with him, still believing we were Scottish.

'We'll hire a car and drive to Kinsale.'

'Why Kinsale?' I asked.

'That's where we come from.'

That was it. Nothing more. I was an Irish McDonald.

In a mist of memory, my father dances like a leprechaun, kissing the Blarney Stone, the Stone of Eloquence, like a lover. 'Kiss it and you'll never be lost for words again,' they say over there. They did not come over here. Witnessing my father's joy in hearty nights sharing drinks with strangers as thick as family, the Paddy softening a tongue – feared like the sword in our house – around the words of Danny Boy, I tucked the Scottish tartan skirts away and grew into the green of another ancestry. Back on the flat plains, within a homestead held in space between bulge of southern sky and dry land, my father doesn't sing.

 

STORIES ARE GO-BETWEENS. They hold steady the conversation between one generation and the next, sometimes across thousands of years, and at times, between cultures. They point in the direction of knowledge rather than cement information in the way of science. They provide nourishment between the land and her people in a lifelong relationship of mutual care for the well-being of both. But there is something more they do. Those cultures that hold stories strong know of their healing powers. Bob knows of the energy held within place. We believe this invisible energy can't be measured and so it can't be. This way of thinking severs deeper connection with story and its power to do more than keep children in their beds at night.

'Once something bad has happened, the memory is carried by that place,' Bob told me. 'This kind of bad energy takes a long time to clear. It can be on an emotional or spiritual level, it doesn't have to be on the physical level. Unnecessary thought in mind, word or action will leave memory that is retained in that place. You stay away from places that have been poisoned. It is the same with buildings and rooms, with any place. In our tradition, secret-sacred places have been determined by our ancestors and we follow the way we have been taught usually through story. The places to be avoided and the sacred places are secret and have been handed down. It's not always that we know why. It could be from something that took place in Creation time or it could be from events since then.'

 

WHAT BOORI MONTY Pryor and I share is not at first obvious. It is about digestion. I am a white woman and Boori is a black man. I am from the bush, Boori is urban. Boori is a saltwater man. I am from a no-water place. We are both Queenslanders. Boori's Kunggandji and Birri-Gubba ancestors walked in rainforest for tens of thousands of years.

'You'd enjoy a cappuccino too if you'd been waiting forty thousand years for one,' he jokes.

Boori made me laugh. He gave me voice. He gave me a way to fit words to my childhood of messenger birds and spirits, and dust beneath bare feet, of being story naked. I wanted to hear more about myself from Boori.

What Boori and I share is the need to digest the pain in our systems.

'Where you come from?' Boori's Uncle Henry asked me on first meeting.

'From beyond the Great Dividing Range,' I answered.

The question that followed came fast on my tracks, yet was softly spoken. 'They kill people there, eh?'

This was not the first I heard of the massacres in my homeland but it was the most personally delivered.

'I'm sorry if I have insulted your people.' Uncle Henry was gracious. 'Family down that way tell us these things. They killed our people in big mobs where you from.'

The oppressed know most about the oppressor – how they think and act; what they know and what they presume to know; how they smell, touch, taste. What sets Boori apart is that he makes you laugh and ask for more while slapping you around with the hard stories of our shared history. He offers a soft pillow for the anger of those lost. While my ancestors were presuming at best to be smoothing the pillow for a dying race, Boori's elders, the ones like Uncle Henry, were providing a pillow for our anger.

In Boori's words, 'When it's dying time, you are lost if you haven't made the journey to belong. To know who you are and where you belong you need to know the land you walk. Our paintings, stories, dances and songs are all ways to express our belonging. They are us.' In many ways, Boori's story path is easier to retrace than my own. Boori is never far away from his country. Distanced from my ancestral lands, I had to invent new language. The old stories from across the seas were too thick a fabric to express my delicate dance on this soil. And yet the dance of ancient stories, songs and paintings of desert and dry plains, even of rainforests, are not my language either although I have learnt some of their rhythm.

 

I AM NEW mythology. I don't belong back in the old country. When I delve into the old stories of that place I am in love with the creatures, the landscape and the gods. They wave to me in dreams but are no longer who I am. I am new story that comes of the interplay between two others. I am migration story. I am Wanderer, a mythology in itself as old as human evolution.

Child's hand soft in mine, we stand at the gates of the marae and wait. A lone voice calls out, sings in haunting tone descending.

'Haere mai, haere mai, haere mai.'

We are welcomed by Maori elder. Tattooed face and warrior stance, he speaks as one who carries his own canoe.

'Where are you from?' he asks. 'If you come here to know my culture you must first know your own. If you don't know who you are or where you are from, how can we meet face to face?'


From Griffith Review Edition 42: Once Upon a Time in Oz © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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