Sustaining Oral Tradition

Stephen Muecke writes the preface for Stuart Cooke’s edition and translation of George Dyuŋgayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle, which also appears in the Cordite Poetry Review (20 Oct 2014, see: Sustaining Oral Tradition: A Preface to Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle).

Muecke writes,

The complex process of translation spelled out by Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle – from a spirit being to Dyuŋgayan to Roe and Butcher Joe, to Ray Keogh to Stuart Cooke; from Nyigina to Broome English to Australian English; from oral production supplemented with gestures and sand drawings via tape recorders and notebooks to alphabetic script printed on paper – reinforces the idea that translation is emphatically never about reducing the number of mediations, nor indeed facilitating the transfer of meaning.

I am reminded of my own process of watching stories translate between contexts and materialities in my own research. These stories of being with, performed on country, move through. They might offer a moment of fixedness/stability (Frans; Law 2004), otherwise, they draw on metaphor to metamorphose and translate into new forms, including oral stories. Just like the rainbow serpent creator beings that are said to have shaped parts of the Australian continent, stories too ‘dive and reappear in new places’ (Emerson in Levin 1999, p. 3). Stories make themselves visible in one manifestation or another: in country and through storytelling, before they disappear or transform into some other materiality: into transcripts, conversations of remembrance and onto paper. Following stories and metaphors as they reveal themselves as actors in my research, my task as the researcher is to ‘… seek to understand, and to watch what they’re up to’ (Nicholls 2013, p. 42). There can be no prior assumptions about what these actors do; as John Law (2004) states, actors as entities ‘… are not given, [instead] they emerge in relations [with other actors]’ (p. 102).

References:

Dyungayan, G & Cooke, S 2014, Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle, Puncher &​ Wattmann, Glebe.

Law, J 2004, After Method: mess in social science research Routledge, Oxon.

Levin, J 1999, The poetics of transition: Emerson, pragmatism, and American literary modernism, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C.

Nicholls, A 2013, ‘Paper work’, Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts, vol. 12, pp. 40-3.

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Stories in the sky: Indigenous astronomy

‘The stars hold great significance for Australia’s indigenous people. The sky is a textbook of morals and stories, retold from generations to generations. Through their Dreamtime legends, these stories have been the stages to their existence for thousands of years.’ (SBS online)

Click here to link to this story.

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Metaphors for learning – a Mäori perspective

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Being called (back) by place, cont.

The others left the track before me, choosing to scale up the low sand dune which grew off the side of the track. I kept going, drawn in by the corridor of tea trees that led me deeper into the heart of the big sand drift. The sandy track emerged into a windblown chute in the towering sand dunes. Beyond was an endless expanse of sand, sculpted by the winds that buffer this promontory. I’d expected there to be no other people here, it had always felt like our secret place. Somewhere in the near distance I could hear the sounds of people whooping and whistling as they slid down the steep face of sand dunes. I could see them in my mind’s eye, rolling and catapulting over themselves all the way to the bottom and then scrambling hand after foot back up to the top. Squinting into the sun, I could make out foot tracks, they crisscrossed the dune system below where I stood. More people; things must have changed. I hadn’t been back here for years, maybe ten or more.

Walking in giant steps down the slope, my eyes grow wide at the sight of a large soak (of water) in a depression in the sand dunes. Being early spring it makes sense for there to be water around, but having never been here in this season, to see water amongst sand dunes seems like a fantasy. Tracks from all directions lead to the edge of the soak. Bird tracks, roo tracks, but no human tracks. Confused, I look out again at all the tracks crisscrossing the landscape around me. Three toes imprinted in the sand glare up at me from the wet sand to my left. Three toes… three toes… ahh! I begin to follow these three-toed footprints away from the dunes. Countless other three-toed footprint tracks intersect the path that I am following.

Led away from the soak, I arrive at a group of acacias just as the emu tracks peter out. The thinnest sliver of a new moon sits low in the sky, making its final descent towards the dunes. This track that I’ve followed has brought me here, I feel a sense of having arrived somewhere. Scanning the area around me though, I wonder why it is that I have arrived here. Clambering up low sand hills I feel compelled to walk the edges of these sand sculptures. They are the embodiment of impermanence, providing (if any) only moments (or illusions) of stability. Wandering north to find my group, I feel called back. I am meant to be there. I look back and see the acacias that acknowledged my presence where I arrived. They are the only things in this landscape that have some kind of grip. So I descend and walk into their circle. Countless tiny seedlings shoot up from the sand, encircling a group of older trees of the same species. I walk forward and part the dense foliage of the older trees. Mossy growths inhabit the thick limbs of these trees and I can just make out what appears to be the ‘heart’ of the formation. Something about this situation feels familiar… the jigal mamara on the sand dune at Bindinyankun. What had appeared to be 10 or 15 trees growing out of the sand dune was actually one. I look deeper into the thick growth and see a dense tree trunk emanating from the dune. Tracing the branches, they all lead back to this central trunk. One tree. Standing within the spherical canopy of this acacia, I feel as though I am in a world. All round me native bees hum as they feed on the yellow flowers which are in bloom. This tree wanted to be seen, acknowledged, and there was a path that led me here.

I have always felt a strong pull by this place, since I was a young child. In my return there is a sense of having been called back. I am not sure why, but there is a strong resonance in my being with this place.

The faint sounds of ‘Coo-eee’ reach me before they are swallowed up by the sand. In the distance I see the silhouettes of three figures walking the ridge lines towards me. When we meet I ask them if they too feel a familiar sense of walking on the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail, across the pink dunes at Rujimon. When I think of this place as a home, a camping and hunting place (fresh water, animals to hunt, close to the coast), my feelings shift. Sensing the habitation of a place, the dwelling that is happening, or has happened, creates a profound shift in how I relate to that place. Place as home, it is an invocation, an opening for new things to emerge, new realities to be born.

We head north, back towards the farmland and the old coast banksias that fringe the path to this big sand drift. My eyes search the sand as we climb the dunes, and there they are…

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IMG_1004… Small messages lying in the sand that this place is home.

Images by Hayley Bunting

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Being called (back) by place

It was in reading Deborah Bird Rose’s most recent blog post Site Fidelity, that I was reminded of a conversation with a friend earlier in the year.

S and I were sitting on the verandah of the ‘new’ cafe in the Botanic Gardens. The moving shade of the rain trees above us formed dancing shadows on our bodies. In this light and in the thickness of the ‘build down’, we began to talk about place. I had just written about my longing to go back to Wamoon (“I can see the sea, it is a lovely blue”); to be in the crystal blue waters and speak with the mountain again. S told me that she too had felt called to be in place, many places, all over the world. As our conversation dropped into that other space (the one that is thick and holds you in timelessness), I asked S, “What if we are called to be in place because country has something to reveal to us?” We spoke about the communicable presence of places that deeply resonate with us. Uncle Max talks about the communicable presence of country when he takes people up to Gulaga Mountain, he says, “Let’s watch the land talk to us.”

Even if we are not consciously aware of why we need to be in a place, it feels right, our bodies sing when we are there. Does the axiom ‘being in the right place, at the right time’ hold more currency than we think?

Rose (see link above) writes about the attachments of human and nonhuman animals to place and the tendency to return to place:

How one comes to be attached to specific places is a process that is both deeply known and yet also forever mysterious. Many attachments are formed early, some stick and some do not. Some people experience them more deeply and non-negotiably than others, but in all cases attachments to place also involve time. Memories form around places, and as they are acted upon they accumulate, and so they are enhanced.

Place-action becomes part of the process of meaning-making, so that place, like the living creatures who grow into it, exists in the lives and minds of creatures who themselves come and go, and are sustained by place. It may not be so well known that humans are by no means the only creatures to form attachments to place. Amongst nonhuman animals one process of attachment is known as site fidelity (the tendency or desire to return).

This coming back, being called back to place is something that memory alone can not be responsible for. We are connected to place through our collective stories (we are never alone in place for there to be personal stories, our stories are always shared with the more-than-human entities in place making them collective), but also perhaps, by the mutual recognition (Roe and Hoogland 1999; Abram 1997) people-place have for one another. Just as our dear friends and family members may long to be with us, so too might place. The idea that country calls people to come and be with it is not unfamiliar to First Peoples on this continent. As F said on the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail “… country loves people, it’s always been part of it from the beginning. It wasn’t country and then people, people and country always from the beginning, one time, always connected.”

Reference:

Abram, D 1997, The Spell of the Sensuous Vintage Books New York

Roe, P & Hoogland, F 1999, ‘Black and white, a trail to understanding’, in J Sinatra & P Murphy (eds), Listen to the People, Listen to the Land, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, pp. 11-30.

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Spirit of Place: Topophilia

Poetica, Radio National, ABC Radio

Saturday 31 May 2014 3:05PM

Topophilia: from the Greek topos “place” and -philia, “love of”

When we meet someone new we commonly ask “Where are you from?” It’s a recognition of the affective bond between people and place, which has been a subject of contemplation as far back as Aristotle, but has gained more attention in recent decades with the emergence of the discipline of psycho-geography. It’s also long been a subject of poetry, and there are many poets whom we identify closely with a particular place – either that where they were born and raised, such as Dorothy Hewett in the West Australian wheatbelt, or the place to which they came later in life, like Margaret Scott, who left her native Bristol for Tasmania at the age of twenty-five. In this program a range of Australian poets describe their relationship with the place that has shaped them.

Click here to listen

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The life of stories

I was sitting in a cafe with friends in Darwin on the weekend, sharing stories about my time in the Mäpuru homelands (in NE Arnhem Land). It had been a while since I last recalled stories of my being with the people and country in Mäpuru; amongst many other things, this time in my life was characterised by deep learning about myself and what it is to be embraced by hosts whilst being a guest and in the cultural minority [1]. My recollections over coffee turned into storytelling and an actor that I have not been with for a while resurfaced from my past – the story about the Basket and the Book. This story describes a critical moment in my life, when the cultural lens through which I perceive the world became glaringly visible. The story also traces my own unraveling as ‘Nia’ and the process through which I was remade through my new connection (gurruṯu/kinship). If a humble basket and book have the potential to unravel and re-make, what about all the other things in our everyday lives?

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So what happens to stories when we ‘put them down’? By placing The Basket and the Book on a website, surely the story has a life other than in my own memory. Verran and Winthereik (2012) offer discussion on ethnographic stories and suggest that they have agency; that they ‘make and work relations’ (p. 1). This idea that ethnographic stories are not just representations of other but actors with interventionist potential is a critical way of disrupting the view that stories are static and inert. But what gives ethnographic stories their interventionist potential? Verran and Winthereik (2012) attribute this potential to their capacity to ‘re-present the world in ways that are generative for the people and practices that the stories are about, as well as for the authors and their academic collective’ (p. 1) and their ability to ‘… ‘dive into’ the everyday, a move towards the inside to show what the everyday is made of’ (p. 2).

Looking around me whilst sitting at my desk, I wonder about all of the things (beyond the basket and the book) which have the agency to unravel and re-make me in this moment… my computer, desk, text books, the light streaming through my west-facing window… Each day I sit amongst these things and perform ‘doing a PhD’, often whilst longing to be amongst the other networks of association that I have performed in through my research (mamara, sand dunes, brolgas, morning star, moon cycles…).

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[1] Anderson (2008) writes about the Mäori ritual of powhiri where the tangata whenua (people of the land/the home people) welcome the manuhiri (the “others”/guests) to country: “ritual performances like powhiri facilitate interaction between groups from near and far in traditional ritual of encounter” (p. 69). The powhiri ritual aims to lift the tapu (sacred/forbidden/unknown/beyond one’s control) “from the manuhiri – the ‘others’ – in order to change their state from tapu to noa, in order to normalize relations between them and the Tangata whenua” (pp. 88-9). Noa is taken to mean secular or normal/known. “The transition between the states of tapu and noa is effected by a series of interactive encounters between tangata whenua and manuhiri. These encounters involve music (waiata), oratory (whaikoreo), and dance (haka)” (p. 85).

I am struck by the potential to re-story people-place connections through welcoming rituals and feel that the Arnhem Weaving workshops with Yolŋu in Mäpuru, the walks up Guluga Mountain with the Yuin people and walking the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail with the Goolarabooloo people are all experiences where I have felt welcomed to country in a generative way, where I have been re-made by the local people-place.

References:

Anderson, HA 2008, ‘A Confluence of Streams: Music and Identity in Aotearoa/New Zealand’, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, University of Maryland, <http://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/8478?mode=full&submit_simple=Show+full+item+record&gt;.

Verran, H & Winthereik, BR 2012, ‘Ethnographic stories as generalisations that intervene’, Science Studies, vol. 25, no. 1.

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