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‘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.
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 grew wide at the sight of a large soak (of water) in a depression in the sand dunes. Being early spring it made sense for there to be water around, but having never been here in this season, to see water amongst sand dunes seemed like a fantasy. Tracks from all directions lead to the edge of the soak. Bird tracks, roo tracks, but no human tracks. Confused, I looked out again at all the tracks crisscrossing the landscape around me. Three toes imprinted in the sand glared up at me from the wet sand to my left. Three toes… three toes… ahh! I followed those three-toed footprints away from the dunes. Countless other three-toed footprint tracks intersect the path that I followed.
Led away from the soak, I arrived at a group of acacias just as the emu tracks petered out. The thinnest sliver of a new moon hung low in the sky, making its final descent towards the dunes. The track that I followed brought me here, I felt a sense of having arrived somewhere. Scanning the area around me I wondered why it was that I had arrived here. But I carry on… Clambering up low sand hills, 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 felt called back. I was meant to be there. I looked back to see the acacias that acknowledged my presence where I had arrived. The only things in this landscape that had some kind of grip on me, I am pulled back, descending the dune, returning and to their circle. Countless tiny seedlings shoot up from the sand, encircling a group of older trees of the same species. Walking forward, I parted the dense foliage of the older trees. Mossy growths inhabit the thick limbs of these trees, I could just make out what appeared to be the ‘heart’ of the formation. Something about this situation felt 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 looked deeper into the thick growth and saw a dense tree trunk emanating from the dune. Tracing the branches, they all led back to this central trunk. One tree. Standing within the spherical canopy of this acacia, I felt as though I was in a world. All round me native bees hummed as they fed on the yellow flowers 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’ reached me before being swallowed up by the sand. In the distance I could just make out 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 headed north, back towards the farmland and the old coast banksias that fringe the path to this big sand drift. My eyes searching the sand as we climbed the dunes, and there they were…
Images by Hayley Bunting
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.”
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.
The following documentary forms part of a six-episode series that highlights Indigenous peoples’ struggle to protect their lands from industrial development. Although the Browse LNG Processing Plant will not be developed along the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail and Northern Traditions Song Cycle (songline), the traditional lands of the Goolarabooloo and Jabirr Jabirr people have still been compulsorily acquired by the Western Australian government. The WA government intends on industrialising the monsoonal vine thicket of the Dampier Peninsula, which is now a threatened ecological community and functions as a year-round food and medicinal resource.
The Native Planet documentary was respectfully made with the Goolarabooloo people and gives voice to their fight to protect country and shares the perspectives of others with supporting and divergent viewpoints.
The Celtic church used to talk about thin places and it would have geographical places that it would consider as ‘thin’ where heaven and earth seemed to meet. But also they would cultivate them as well. And through prayer they would create a thin place. Often when they were thinking about putting a monastery in a place, they would go to a bend in a river and they’d camp out there for weeks, often for forty days and they would just pray there, before they even decided to build.
The idea of people camping by a bend in the river, taking the time to sense the spirit of the place (genius loci) or praying to create a ‘thin place’ reminded me of a story shared with me by Yuin Elder Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison. In a conversation about songlines/songcycles, Uncle Max said that rivers form many of the songlines that travel through country. It is in the bends of the rivers, he said, where much of the energy pools, that is why these are good places to go fishing.
After hearing Palmer speak about thin places I did some hunting about came across Corrine Cunningham’s thesis ‘Remembered Earth: Mythopoetics from the American Southwest of the Spirit of Place and the Re-Enchantment of Humanity.’ In her writing about genius loci, Cunningham (2007) beautifully weaves together threads such as thin places, enchantment and the liminal to elucidate the feelings that are so often indescribable about our engagement with sacred places:
Places associated with enchantment are part of the ancient belief that within this earth, there are sites where the veil between the inner and the outer worlds is permeable, and where an individual experiences what the Japanese poet Basho (1644-94) describes as “a glimpse of the under-glimmer” (qtd. in Cousineau: xix). The Irish call these landscapes “thin places”—as in Roadside Well in Leix, home to the spirits of the land. Anthropologist Victor Turner describes these places as “liminal” ” [ . . . ] a threshold, a place and moment, in and out of time” (Dramas, Fields and Metaphors 197). The liminal landscape of the American Southwest was often the subject for photographer Ansel Adams, who described artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s desert home “Ghost Ranch” in New Mexico as “isolated in a glowing world [.. . ] where everything is sidewise under you, and over you, and the clocks stopped long ago” (qtd. in E. Turner: 19). (p. 5)
In particular, Cunningham’s statement, that ‘… the veil between the inner and the outer worlds is permeable’ in these ‘thin places’ reminds me of a metaphor used by Mathews (2007) that is akin to the veil:
… if one somehow managed to slip under the psychic skin of the world, and “enter” its subjectivity, would one experience the “outside” as “inside”? If one stepped inside the world, in this sense, might the trees and grass and rivers no longer appear as external to oneself? Might they – along with oneself – now be experienced as internal to the psyche of the world? (p. 4)
Rather than lean towards the references of heaven and earth, my own reading of ‘thin places’ is one of places in which I feel a sense of resonance, a being with, outside of temporal constraints. These ‘thin places’ beckon me to allow them in. A pause, a deep breath and a lifting of the veil to see through feeling, that which is waiting to be acknowledged.
Cunningham, Corrine Lara. “Remembered Earth: Mythopoetics from the American Southwest of the Spirit of Place and the Re-Enchantment of Humanity.” Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2007. Print.
Mathews, Freya. “The World Hidden within the World: A Conversation on Ontopoetics.” The Trumpeter 1 (2007). Print.
Forty years ago tomorrow, my mother left behind her village in Macedonia with her brother Meni and arrived in Melbourne, Australia. She has returned twice to Boshoftsi (Mavropigi – black stream) to take her mother back to the village and to bring her back to Australia. The last time she was there was in 1999. Since then, the rocky stuff that made the stream in the village black (coal) has transformed the place and the community, making it Almost no place to go back to.
The Thei open pit coal mine grows, stretching its terraces closer and closer to the village. Other villages have already gone under the shovels and dozers, creating a different sort of space in these once dwelt-in places.
On the edges of the village (or is the anchor of reference now the coal pit?), fields (horafia) lie abandoned, except for those still walked by my Thio Fani who still keeps his herds of stock here. Our relatives and other village dwellers have almost all moved to the nearest big town. Their safety is no longer guaranteed, explosions from the mine rocking the earth and breaking apart its substance, the materiality that has fed existence in this land since the great forests laid down to sleep.
I wanted my parents to go back to the village when they were in Europe earlier this year. It is only now I can sense the heartbreak that would have ensued if they had.
My father once told me about the way in which the fields were laid out before they had been consolidated for tobacco farming. Each family had fields scattered on the outskirts of the village, each bounded by pear and walnut trees and vines. Then someone had the bright idea of redistributing the land so that everyone had big plots they could tend for cash crops, so the pear and walnut trees and vines went. The waves of industrialisation – some small and soft, others big and violent – of the land have removed people from the places with which they were connected.
When my family and I were talking about our family tree, I would ask my mother and father where so and so came from… “the village” and this person who married such and such… “the village”. In living memory, all but one of my ancestors has come from this village. I went there once, when I was nearly sixteen. I walked the voono (mountain) with my father and spoke to a relative herding goats. On top of the mountain is a tiny church and a view of the fields, village, open pit coal mines and smog from the nearby coal-fired power station. My time in the village (4 weeks) did not foster within me a sense of home or feelings of belonging. I have always felt confronted about this. Like so many other first-generation Australians, the place of my ancestry exists in the imaginary of my parents’ stories about ‘the village’. Their village is a place from 1968 (dad) and 1974 (mum), the home they left behind.
What will remain of ‘country’ and feeling in country when the fields, houses, mountain, trees and birds are all gone? In the space that used to be place, a home…
For nine days we walk along the coast, through mayi, along sandy beaches and cliff tops. At sundown we unfurl dusty swags onto red pindan or white sand, tying mosquito nets to the branches of murga. Smokey fires ward off persistent mosquitoes, infusing hair and cloth with the smell of gunaroo and jigal…