Sunday, December 23, 2007

Into my bones

Our stay in the outback of central Australia got into my bones. Aboriginal culture pulls you in and makes you WANT to think and feel like these people who could create a society so socially coherent that it could survive in this landscape.

The landscape … the geography … in an environment as unforgiving as the outback is the reality that dictated culture. And if your culture could pass on the secrets of survival in this landscape, to the next generation, then you would survive. The Anangu as the Aboriginals refer to themselves have a cultural center at the base of Uluru and we spent the afternoon with Wally and his interpreter, Chris, learning the stories of Wally’s people. In Anangu culture the parents, who are younger and stronger, leave child rearing to the grandparents who are wiser and older. Parents go off and hunt and gather all day. It is from your grandparents that you learn all the laws and customs and religious beliefs of the society which in the Pitjanjatjura language is called Tjukurpa (chook-orr-pa). Over and over again we were told that Tjukurpa is untranslatable to a Western sensibility. It is more than a religion, more than a set of laws, more than cultural norms … it is an all encompassing way of being in the world that encompasses the past, the present and the future all at the same time.

The stories that are passed on to you by your grandparents become your stories. No one else can tell your story and you cannot tell anyone else’s story. But there are shared stories about creation and what is known as “the dreamtime.” It was this story that Wally told us at the foot of Uluru. Near a water hole at the base of the rock he told a dreamtime story about a two giant pythons where the good giant python (a female with lots of eggs) slays the bad python (a male with lots of poison). As we walked back form the water hole Wally stopped and looked back at the rock and the story again, only THIS time you could see the story in the rock face … the track the female python had taken was a darkened coloration along the rock face, the place where the bad python was slain was a crevice in the rock face, the blood from his smashed head a stain of oxidized discoloration.

The men hunted, the women gathered. When you look out over the landscape it appears there is nothing TO gather. Look again. There are grass seeds that can be made into a paste, grubs at the base of the wichetty tree, bush plums that can be stored in their dried form all year and reconstituted with water, the honey ants who carry honey in their bodies, and of course snake eggs (be sure you know that the hole you are digging in belongs to a non poisonous snake.) Supplement that with the occasional kangaroo, and you have yourself some pretty nourishing “bush tucker.”

Our last night in the outback ended with another sunset view of Uluru which I was starting to see in a new way after learning my dreamtime story from Wally.

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