Autumn notes: The Song Keepers

I’m probably posting this too late.

I want to tell you about a documentary movie my wife and I saw a few days ago. The movie overwhelmed me.

My wife and I arrived a few minutes early and we took our seats. We were the first to arrive. We watched trailers of a number of forthcoming films in which an individual or a group achieves redemption through performance of music.

Then our movie began. Within minutes the story is told: a black man who travels to Central Australia finds groups of women choristers, all of them Aboriginal. The women used to sing ancient Lutheran hymns, not in German but in their own (far more ancient) Aboriginal languages. The man revives the choirs, brings them together, trains them and flies with them to Germany where the ladies (whose massed choir somehow includes two men) perform and triumph. Simple story, simply told.

The choirmaster drives from Alice Springs to the settlement of Hermannsburg (126 kilometres), from Alice to Areyonga (214 kms), from Alice to Docker River (673 kms), to meet and recruit his singers. Arriving in one remote community after dark, he feels his way to the little church by torchlight. The church is empty. Addressing the camera cheerfully, the would-be choirmaster says, I wonder how many will come. I wonder if any will come. A handful gathers and embraces the rebirth of their old songs. We see these women, clearly inspired and energised. Something, some memory, stirs them.

We watch these joyous women, mostly old and fat and jolly, in their singing and in their joyous being. We witness the joyfulness of these ladies, the exultation that flows from them and between them as they join together in song. We hear them tell their stories, stories of massacre, of confiscated children, stories of loss and of love. We watch and we tremble with formless stirrings of our own.

We watch the singers clothe their corpulent selves in their gowns of earth colours (I mean earth browns and earth reds), we see them congregate at Alice Springs airport for the unfamiliar enterprise of commercial jet travel. They land in the cold of Germany and discover Lutheran churches vaster and more ancient than they have known. Congregations materialise and the choristers master their nerves and they give voice. The local Lutherans are overcome: here is their old time music brought back alive and pulsating in tongues they do know. And yet they do know.

The locals weep, the choristers weep, and two old Jews seated in the cinema – the sole patrons in this screening –  weep too. My eyes moistened with the first sung chords and never dried, as I vibrated to the passion and the glory. What is this alchemy of sound, of treasured memory, of lost ceremony regained, that lets loose these springs of cleansing tears?

I realise I’ve probably spoiled the movie for you. Perhaps that doesn’t matter: the movie will end its so brief season any day now. But if you do manage somehow to catch ‘The Song Keepers’ remember to bring along a hankie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhEh3kmBSxI

Jun 21, 2017 – Uploaded by MIFF

The Song Keepers Australia | 85 minutes Central Australia’s answer to The Buena Vista Social Club, The …

The Song Keepers – Trailer – YouTube

 2:43

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUFXbQAX9Z4

Mar 14, 2018 – Uploaded by Potential Films

Dir. by Naina Sen, Australia, 2017. 84 min | Documentary Four generations ofsong women that make …

I Feel Free

While my daughter is away I feel free…

My elder daughter and I share an understanding: I will write pieces for this blog and she alone will post them. The arrangement rests upon our secure shared knowledge of my technical incapacity to do the posting.  It rests too upon the lovingkindness of the daughter*.

That daughter is away. A small item has germinated in the deep soils of my being and it presses urgently to find the light. That trifle cannot possibly be a blog post, because, as I have mentioned, the daughter alone is blogenabled. What follows must be something different. It is the unripe fruit of my liberty.

I met a man the other day who was unwell. The man smiled a mouth of American teeth. He wore a white shirt, a dark tie with a tiepin and a name tag. The name on the tag read ELDER BLOGS**. The man was young, slim, erect in his bearing and he was bearing up despite being quite unwell. Elder Bloggs was accompanied by another young man, equally erect, endowed likewise with enviable teeth, a similar black tie, a very white shirt and a nametag of his own. This read: ELDER MAO**. Elder Mao spoke American but he was evidently Chinese.

We spoke of illness and of healing and we agreed I should try my hand at the latter. The Elders visited me again the following day. Healing was underway and we had leisure now to speak of other matters.

I asked Brother Mao: Is your family still in China?

Yes.

The American teeth appeared in affirmation.

Do they share your faith?

Yes.

Is it permitted in China?

Yes. In the family. I mean privately.

More teeth, to allay any misgiving.

Addressing both Elders I asked: Are you preaching the Gospel here in Australia?

Yes. Nodding of heads. Many teeth.

But – reverting here to Brother Mao – Is it permitted to preach the Gospel in China?

Oh no.

My eyebrow invited the Elder to elaborate.

It is against Government policy. China is atheistic.

No teeth. A worried look.

I resumed: I understand Falung Gong followers can be punished for teaching their practices. Do the same rules apply to you?

A nod. A serious look. No words: not apparently free to elaborate further.

I remembered Tiananmen Square.

I remember the times.

I remember the times of the Aboriginal man in the Channel Country who reminisced on his days as a cattleman. He looked back on those days with pride, long days that stretched into weeks on the track. Those periods of freedom punctuated the other days, days that were years on the station where he was bound, not at liberty to leave the boss’ employ. One man did and the cops hauled him back to the station where the whitefeller bosses whipped hi with iron chains. I calculated our age difference. When this man was eighteen I was ten, growing up in liberty. I learned at school of William Wilberforce and the ending of slavery. I lived in Australia. We didn’t have slavery in Australia. I remember the times.

I remember the times when we took away the children and gave them to whitefellers. I heard my parents’ friends say: They are going to good homes.

I remember when liked to wear Nike running shoes. But then I learned of child slavery in Asian factories.

I remember the times in Broken Hill when children as young as twelve were dying in the mines, of accidents, of lead poisoning.

I remember the times when my tribes lived in Judea under the Romans. They were times when great rabbis were burned alive for studying Torah.

I remember the times when we were enslaved in Egypt, times when they stole the children and drowned the baby boys.

I remember slavery in Auschwitz. If I went to the right I went into slavery. The slaves were the luckier ones.

Tonight, at home here in lucky Australia, I’ll lean back, a free man, and I’ll drink four glasses. I’ll tell my generations of the times when I was a slave.

And if they ask: were you a slave, Saba? – I’ll tell them I’ve never been to Egypt but I remember the times. I’ll tell the children I mustn’t forget the times.  If I ever forget I won’t deserve to be free.

* both daughters actually. The younger, removed geographically, is spared the call of this blog.

** I have changed the Elders’ names.

Silent Singer

 
The voice floated across my lonely motel room in Darwin. The sound of slow sweet lament suited my mood in that anonymous room in a lodging for transients. The voice sang of home, of home lost, of home dreamed and remembered. In that room, at that season – the three weeks of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple – the voice sang to me of loss, my own and the singer’s.
 
 
After a period working on Elcho Island I had arrived in Darwin at day’s end, had wandered blindly about the Darwin Festival, blindly had selected this CD of Elcho singers. Later, in the light I read their names. I recognised ‘Yunipingu’: hadn’t he been Australian of the Year? But this would be a different Yunipingu.
 
 
Only a couple of years later that floating voice had percolated through the ears  of the entire nation, seeped into our being and changed us. Distinctive as didgeridoo, his voice was recognised everywhere. His solo album was the cultural event of the year. Realising how a voice had become the sound that we recognised ourselves by, I wrote. “Australia is becoming more Australian.”  
 
 
Born in 1971 the singer passed away last week. He died during the three weeks of mourning. I listen to ‘Warwu’ and I feel for my country, impoverished. The singer has passed from us. So much loss, so many, so young.
 
 
 
 
click on this link to hear him singing 'Warwu': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhkMP89rRMk

From the Heart 3

 
0600. The rock squats, silent, a massive cupcake among the grasses. Moment by moment the light changes: dark gives way to deep blues, to a steel blue, now to a primrose glimmering. All is quiet, still. Life suspended, the plain broods, foreknowing sunrise.
 
0621.The rock as image is too familiar. The rock as concrete reality forbids familiarity. I emerge from my small car, and regard the great terracotta thing before me: after all these years its immensity, everfresh, astonishes me. My car winds its way to the carpark. At every bend the rock changes; every aspect surprises and evokes the overpowering question: what immortal hand or eye? My question and the custodians’ questions are the same as Blake’s. The very greatness demands a myth.
I glance at the steep wall at my side and the slope flings my gaze up, up, upward beyond my range of cervical extension. The human neck cannot accommodate the reality; only if I lie on my back can I take it in. The human ant needs a postcard.
 
0623. Time to start: I am alone, the sole ant. The base walk used to be nine kilometres in length. Now it’s 10.6 kilometres. The rock hasn’t grown but the people who manage the Park have decided to keep us at a distance. And I need to finish my circuit by 0730: time to start.
 
Every one of my years finds voice and protests in my lower back as I shamble into movement. I intended to run but for now this hobbling is the best I can do. The gravel path underfoot is soft and red. It cushions and retards. Slower going and harder. But with only a hundred metres behind me slow going and aching back are forgotten. The rock compels, demands all attention, with its folds and bends, its clefts and pits, its elegant curves, its sweep and breach, its sudden secret shades and sulci.
That face – those many faces – prefigure every expression of humanity. The rock gazes down with idle incuriosity, here it is a pockmarked teenager, here a gaunt pensioner, now a lady, elegant in her long dress that falls and sweeps and moves gracefully in concert with my passing. The rock shows the many faces that are human faces: here is calm, here inscrutability, here obduracy.
Three great gouges side by side at great height, these are eye sockets, empty: what is this sight that sears her eyeballs?  The rock gazes out at our killing fields, at Crusades and Inquisition, at Babi Yar, Rwanda, Cambodia, at Holocaust, at the Armenian Genocide. The rock’s eyeless sockets see all. She has no tears. No mouth here, no words.
 
0630. Right on time the sun comes up, shining, burning directly in my eyes as the rockface heads me due east. The wind comes up too, blowing hot hard warnings of today’s forty degrees: you step outside from your cooled habitat, you breathe, your palate dries and you gasp. The second breath confirms the first impression.
For now the hot headwind is welcome: an early headwind promises a following wind in the later stages when I’ll head west and home.
But the sun, this sun, this blaze, this interrogator’s light right in my eyes: son of man, why have you come?
My innocent run is no longer blameless.
Son of man, what business have you here?
What? Why? What do I seek – peace? Innocence?
The light glares: What gift do you bring?
Consciousness. It is all I have.
The bright light relents, winking now, filtered by thin foliage, broken by gentle rises and bends. 
At this point the run might become a chore; the vista is relatively unremarkable, the rock radiating yesterday’s stored heat, the glare, the difficult going underfoot, the headwind – all might sap a runner. Instead the mechanical affair of placing one foot before another feels charged, significant. Plod, plod, breathe, breathe, the ordinary is transmuted. It is said of William Blake that he took a visitor outside, directed him to look at the midsummer sun and report what he saw. “Bright sunshine”, said the visitor. Said Blake, “I see hosts of fiery angels surrounding the Throne, singing Holy, Holy, Holy.”
 
Fires in my throat. I sip my iced water. But first I recite the customary blessing over the water, an act in which this mortal congratulates his Maker on His good idea in creating and providing the mortal with water. Water never tasted better. Like everything here it is charged, touched with the sublime.
 
I have passed twenty minutes alone in the company of Uluru, an uncommon privilege. At my left, hidden in the scrub, is the village of Mutitjulu. Its people live in the lee of immensity. Daily they awaken to the view of deep terracotta that earlier was mine. At sunset, fire flames from the rock’s margins, the rock purples. Echoes follow me – another place, another colour scheme:
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
 
 
Around the bend now, heading south, the greens and greys relieve the eye. I can’t complain of sameness. More faces in the rock, caves that grimace, bluffs that lower, red rock that slopes down towards my feet, down, down, a slow, shy approach. The rock is within a metre of my shod foot. To step on it a profanation. I do not walk this rock. Not now.
 
Around another bend and another, tracing waving folds, the rock shapes here are emphatically, anatomically feminine. Inescapably feminine. Curves that flow, flow, ineffably graceful, to deepening clefts, soft in the gentling light. These mother forms beckon, embrace, call me home.
 
My old legs move fluently, easily. They swallow the miles. My mouth burns, it sends messages – drink, drink – messages you receive only when it’s too late. Above me rockmouths gape toothlessly, vast, cavernous, inaccessible. My eye searches the sheer face; only a mountaineer equipped with hammer, piton and ropes could reach those high hollows. But in their depths ochreous markings, patterns, declare themselves; these impossible deeps are painting sites.  No white foot might imaginably intrude. Good!
 
Nearing the beginning of the end, here is the Mutijulu pool, a cool, shaded dell between three high surrounding walls. Its waters are permanent. But no, not so today, not in this heat. I gaze amazed at naked sands. Even dry they keep their cool, concealing water close to the surface. This dryness is a mirage; at all hands the growth is green, tender, silvan.
 
0715. Nearer the end and I am not alone. Cars pass on the bitumen that runs unseen, parallel to my path. Above me the rock has mouths with calcific projections, teeth that do not smile at what passes below. I look ahead: there, formicating on the slope, scores, hundreds of whitefellas climb hand over hand along a chain that will take them to the top. They will climb Uluru, they will conquer, they’ll be able to tell everyone.
At the top they’ll see the pits and gullies, the moonscape no-one below imagines, the scales and plaques of red; and the smallness of humans below.
I know what they see. I know the climbers haven’t seen or haven’t understood or haven’t cared what the owners write on the notice: Anangu do not want you to climb the rock.
I am not happy to see them climbing. It seems disrespectful. I feel it as if it were a personal sIight. I know and I care about it because I too have climbed the rock. A quarter of a century ago, I drove up, leaped from my car and ran up the slope. I did not see the notice. Hubris sped my feet: I would conquer Uluru; I would do it at the run, I would not stop.
Of course I did stop – after only fifteen metres – stopped and gasped, ran again, stopped, fought a breathlessness I had not known before. I made it to the top, saw how small we are and descended. I do not climb now.
 
 
 

From the Heart 1

Warily opening the newspaper I came upon the following passage, quoted in an essay authored by Aboriginal leaders. I found it unusual.

 

“What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst the past has thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”

 

 

This cri de coeur from the pen of former Australian of the Year, Galarwuy Yunupingu, distils the Letter from the Heart, which is the statement of Aboriginal consensus on their future. There’s a Jewish saying, words that come out from the heart (will) enter the heart.

 

Australia Day in Doomadgee

Doomadgee, we write it
In our orthography
Really should be
Dumat’ji
 

No flag raising here
No speech or ceremony
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

River runs warm
Kiddies swim and swarm
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

Uncles bashing
In Australian passion
On Australia Eve
Here in Doomadgee

 
Broken hand, broken
Jaw, cut faces and more:
That’s Australia Day
In Doomadgee.
 

Adam Goodes
Too far away
This Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

A busy day this
Australia Day
In the hospital
In Doomadgee
 

We plaster, we suture
Like there’s no future:
Future no feature 
of Australia Day,
Not here, no way, 
In Doomadgee
 

The end of Australia Day –
Quietness falls
In hospital halls
Of Doomadgee
 

But short the respite –
Quick! Elder sick,
Dying On Australia night –
Dying here in Doomadgee?
 

Quiet, quiet, his voice, his breath –
Small his smile at threshold of death –
Good night Australia:
System failure in Doomadgee
 

Beside him, quiet woman – or girl –
His guard and ward in this world
Trembles, faces an Australian day
Elderless in Doomadgee.
 

He slips away from teeming kin
Who hold tears and keening in;
A dreadful peace on Australia Day
And quiet, this night in Doomadgee.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

On the Main Road

Friday afternoon, the eve of the sabbath. Riding home from my shift in the Emergency Department at Alice Springs Hospital I would have missed her if I’d been abiding by the law. Luckily I was riding along the footpath when I came upon her. She looked about fifty but I reckon her true age at mid-thirties. Her large face seemed inflated, her eyelids puffy, her lips swollen, her natural flabbiness accentuated by deforming scars and oedema. The face was bronze in colour. Her gaze was inward – even when I was abreast of her, when I addressed her, I was absent to her. 

In all our minutes together we were never more than ten metres distant from people passing in cars and on foot. But in our leaden ballet we would dance alone.
She was shorter than I and a good deal heavier. The weight differential would matter when I’d struggle to lift her. I was a metre from her when I first registered her human presence. A slender tree at my right shoulder obscured her from sight. Abrupt movement caught my eye, a straining, forceful jerking of her thick neck and thorax as if she sought to escape. In fact the opposite was the case. 
The woman’s hands worked to adjust a cord that looped once around the tree then twice around her neck. I saw the cord and stopped. With all in place she suddenly slumped. Don’t! Don’t do that! – these were all the words I found. I flung my bike aside and threw myself towards the woman. She grunted but did not speak. My arms about her did not arrest her fall. The cord tightened. I remembered the knife in my lunchbox. As I groped frantically in my backpack she thudded suddenly to earth at my feet.  
A white cord floated down after her. The cord was a lengthy bootlace, the sort you pull on to tighten your running shoes. That slender tie would never support ninety kilograms of self nihilation.
Lying on the earth her silent body did not move. Was she breathing? A wave of alcoholic air reaching my nostrils answered that question. Was she conscious? I spoke. No response. I shouted. No answer. I placed my right thumb into the small bony notch above her eye and pressed hard. This truly painful stimulus evoked no movement, not a flinch. On the Glasgow Coma scale I reckoned her score at eight of a possible fifteen.
As I crouched in all my clinical perplexity an Aboriginal woman appeared at my side. Gesturing in the direction from which I’d been riding she said, The hospital is just back that way. Did I smile as I thanked her? I don’t know.
My lady was alive, breathing, intoxicated, apparently unconscious. In the long seconds since slumping she had not moved. What harm had her spinal cord suffered in that violent moment when the bracing cord arrested her fall? I could not know. My phone: where was it? Fast fingers delved and delivered from my pocket. I rang triple zero. The voice asked, Police, Fire or… Ambulance! I shouted. Ninety seconds after giving location and clinical details the siren sounded behind me. The vehicle pulled up alongside my waving, jumping body. A tall woman blonde woman alighted. She would have been in her thirties – like our patient, and unlike her. I answered her questions. A friendly smile lit her face as she said, Big shock for you, I’d imagine. This time I did smile. After a shift in Alice’s Emergency Department I’d become inured to shocks. The paramedic crouched over our patient and I heard her say: Hello girlfriend! as I mounted and headed home for the peace of Shabbat.
   

Letter to the Young Person Who Pinched my Book

 
Dear…..,

I forget your name. We met only once and it was a couple of years ago. You were a new waiter and I was an old coffee drinker. I ordered, you brought me my coffee (strong latte, in a glass, steamed milk on the side) and I opened my new book. The bright cover caught your eye. You made some remark and I was surprised: not everyone would be interested in the Tjanpi Desert Weavers.

I was just back from working at the foot of Yulara. The city hummed and throbbed and clanged around me but the red earth still glowed within me, the emptiness, the stillness and the silence still called. I opened my book. For a paperback it was pretty pricey, around seventy bucks. But for an art book it was a steal. There on the cover were two aged Aboriginal women, proudly holding their distinctive animal sculptures. Like Yeats’ ancient Chinese in ‘Lapis Lazuli’ –

    Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, 

    Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

(Writing at a time of conflict, Yeats sees ‘gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. By ‘gaiety’ Yeats means the creative drive of the artist.)

 

 

Forgive me, I digress.

 

 

I lingered over the images. My women weavers, or sculptors, all come from the fantastically named Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjanjatjara and Yankunytjatjara communities. Have you ever come across such challenging place names? I’ve worked in those desert communities and still I struggle to say them right. In the pages of my book you’ll have learned the great secret of the weavers’ ‘desert’ country: with the changing seasons the desert erupts in blooms. You see colours unimaginable in the landscape and you find them again in these flimsy frail pieces of woven whimsy.

 

 

It was time for me to go. I rose and went to the counter to pay. Somehow you materialised at my side and somehow I parted with the book. As a loan. I left, delighted to share in the city’s grey morning all that gaiety and light.

 

 

When I returned to the café the following week, you weren’t there. I never saw you again. I never saw my book again. What happened? Did you leave the job for a better one? Did you leave town? Did your mum get sick, back in Sweden? I don’t imagine you saw the book and whispered to yourself, ‘I think I’ll pinch that.’

 

 

And what prompted me to part from a new book and lend it to a new waiter? Was it the coffee? I’ve done madder things after drinking coffee. Was it some small kindness, some act of courtesy, some swirl of skirt or flash of dimpled smile?

 

 

I don’t remember how or why. I don’t remember your name, I scarcely remember your face. I do remember my feeling of unexpected pleasure when you showed an interest. I hope you have the book still in Sweden or Iceland, and the Tjanpi women weave gaiety into your life.

 

 

 

About Tjanpi

Katangku kuruntu kulira kunpu palyanma Making Strong works with a Strong Heart

Tjanpi Desert Weavers (Tjanpi) was initiated by NPY Women’s Council in 1995 in response to an expressed need by Anangu women for meaningful and culturally appropriate employment.

 

Coiled basketry was introduced at workshops held in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands. Within two years, artists were making a quirky range of sculptures as well as baskets, and by 2000, weaving had spread right across the NPY region.

 

“I’m just a boy whose intentions are good; Please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

Picture: Ray Strange Source: News Corp Australia

Picture: Ray Strange Source: News Corp Australia

A photo in the current issue of The Monthly shows Bob Hawke and John Howard seated together at a public event to honour the memory of a deceased Prime Minister. Their old faces deeply creased, their bodies close, Hawke’s right arm entwined with Howard’s left, the picture of two old men united in deep sympathy – and in Hawke’s case at least – showing characteristic demonstrativeness, as his hand gently grasps Howard’s thigh. The image arrested me. I thought of Yeats’ Lapis Lazuli:

‘There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies…
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes…’

In the same issue of the magazine I was arrested by an equally unexpected image: Noel Pearson the leading Aboriginal intellectual seated close to Tony Abbott, our Prime Minister. Pearson looks past the PM, gazing severely into the distance; Tony Abbott, smiling tightly, looks upward to Pearson’s face. I spent some time interrogating their expressions. In Pearson I found depth, a sober realism. In Tony I saw yearning. I wondered how it was the PM appeared to be the supplicant, the client, while the man from disadvantage wore such self-assurance.

Tony Abbott is co-author (along with predecessor PM’s and a succession of underlings) of our World’s Worst Practice towards human beings who arrive in Australia by boat and seek asylum. That policy is cruel by calculation; it is calibrated torture. Our practice is a precise antithesis of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now, would-be-good Tony knows this and only by a sustained effort of moral contortion and will can he manage to unknow it.

Along with Morrison, Ruddock, Howard, Beasley and Rudd, Tony Abbott is an avowed believer. He belongs to a claque of believers who perpetrate this unchristian – indeed antichristian – policy. How do they all do it? What do the believers believe?

In Tony’s case the face I see is an innocent face. He gazes towards his grownup interlocutor, his expression seeking approval: he seeks a word or a sign: “Good boy, Tony, you’ve done well.” Like a small boy Tony seeks affirmation. By means of sustained effort he has gained this, successively from the ghost of Bob Santamaria and from Cardinal George Pell. From such firmly formed personages Tony learned notions of goodness. He would be good and thereby be approved.
The child looked for affirmation from John Howard and the Liberal Party. He sought our approbation too and, in opinion polls and at the last federal election we gave it. We became complicit in sustaining the ego structure of this needy child. Patently we no longer show approval to this immature person. He locks himself inside a tightening circle of insecurity, looking to spouse, offspring and advisors, some of them women, to whom he seeks mothering.

On Mother’s day I will muster all the compassion I am capable of and try to think kindly of Tony Abbott, the child leader who just wants to be good (just so long as we’ll approve).

A Small Town in the Bush

Water is the secret, the theme, the meaning, the life of the town. If the town is to die it will be the failing – or the flowing – of water that will see its death.

Driving in at night I missed the river. Unaware even of the fact of the bridge, watching always for suicidal kangaroo, I followed the bitumen and missed the river. After unpacking I ran the shower. Who farted? Mother earth, is the answer: borne on bore water were those sulphurous fumes from antiquity. I lathered and rinsed. And rinsed again. Still slimy with slippery salts I towelled myself with vengeful vigour.

In the morning I brewed a bore water cuppa. It tasted fine, of coffee, not of earth’s bowel.

Before work I went for a run. Here was Terry, a cheerful sixty-year-old hosing the wide grassy expanses that surround the hospital. Modern sprinklers invented in, say,1950, would see the extinction of this man’s job.

Memorial Park with its humble cylinder of brown marble rising less than three metres from its plinth. From its pediment I read names from the Great War. This very small town offered up too many. Two of the dead bore the same family name.

Below the names from the First War were listed those who died in WWII. These names took up two of four wide rectangles of space at the base of the monument. Two rectangles remain for future names of dead from a nation that has always fought the distant wars of others.

A team of workmen clustered at a roadside. Beefy men all in their high-vis yellows, they watched as one of their number swung a sledge hammer. The hammer was a mighty instrument, the hammerer broadest of all, taller when recumbent. Four watched as one swung. A cement gutter cracked, disintegrated. Five men at work, working to undo the work of yesterday.

The shops sit behind their generous tin verandahs, shaded by rooves supported on wooden poles. The shops, house-proud but not fancy, wear old livery touched up and respectable. A notice offers me the chance to buy one of two coffee shops in the main street: it lists ‘large shop, vacant possession, on generous grounds with six-car shed and outbuildings’. “Hunter’s Supermarket” sits in dignified desolation beneath its formal signage. Its windows are covered on the inside by broadsheet newspaper. ‘For Sale’, says the sign.

At lunchtime I visit the emporium. Triple fronted, its three doorways lead to three sections. One displays work clothes, a second sells ‘guns and ammo’ and cooking implements ranging from basic aluminium to imported chefware. The third section offers saddles, riding boots, rodeo hats. The floors are of wood, the high ceilings of patterned pressed metal. ‘Handsome ceilings’, I remark to the sales lady. She nods, smiles attractively, and observes, ‘They leak when it rains. And the owners aren’t keen to repair the roof.’ Water again.

I am not here for the superstructure but for my own infrastructure: I need new undies. Sales lady leads me to them and removes to a discreet distance. Slim, tall in her tooled rodeo boots, her jeans scrolled and silvered at the seat, she’s a distraction. I find a pack of two pairs in interesting colours. The brand name is ‘Heavy Lifters.’ The sales lady keeps a straightish face: ‘It’s the name of a whole range of work clothes, not just, ah, men’s personal things.’

I buy some men’s personal things.

I show interest in men’s work shirts. These too are in electric shades of lime and purple. ‘They’d alarm my bride,’ I say.

Sales lady points me to a different rack of iridescence: ‘Why not you buy your bride one of these pretty shirts for girls?’

I settle for Goondiwindi Cream Soap, picturing my wife’s limbs, clean as Gunsynd’s.

At work my patients are generally aged. One group consists of slow moving stout people, retired, in their fifties and early sixties, who live here in town. The others, slimmer, gnarled of knuckle and sun blighted, are in their seventies and eighties. These live out of town on cattle properties which they continue to work. For the trip into town these folk dress smartly. Lots of colour, a quiet elegance.

It’s more enjoyable doctoring the farm folk with their accidents of activity than the town folk, who, although younger, are less healthy with their illnesses of inactivity.

In the waiting room no-one checks a wristwatch. All appear unhurried and relaxed and friendly. All but one, a hunched small lady, 83 years of age, who wears a floral yellow dress and a fierce mien. ‘I won’t see that other doctor! And don’t you try and give that useless tablet he gave me!’

At this stage, unaware of the identity of that other doctor or of the useless tablet or of the condition treated, I am at a disadvantage. The lady has me pinned to the ropes where she continues to batter me for the next twenty minutes. ‘Those blue tablets, don’t give me those!’

‘Which blue tablets?’ – diffidently.

‘You know the ones. I won’t take them. So don’t try to make me. I might look old but I’m still manhandling steers and I’m not simple.’

I study her file for clues.

‘Well? What are you going to do for me? Don’t give me any of your soft soap, young man. I’ve put up with this for long enough.’

I point out that I’m not her adversary, that it’s up to her to decide whether or not to trust me, and if she doesn’t trust me she should not waste her time on me.

She falls silent, her large mouth hanging slack as she regards me in surprise. I am surprised too. I’m starting to enjoy myself.

A truce is declared. Later in the waiting room, she informs the office staff, bellowing, ‘That new young doctor’s all right. Don’t you try to make me see that other one. I won’t have a bar of him.’

Day after day the skies are cloudless, palest blue, arching high to eternity. Not a cloud in sight. But yesterday low grey cloud hovered. The waiting room was full of talk. Veterans of too much faithless cumulus, the farmers were skeptical. Today all is blue again; the old men were right. One old bloke with a great hole in his leg – he came off his motor bike, digging out a divot of flesh – tells me: ‘There are three year old frogs out on my farm that don’t know how to swim.’

He laughs. A wounded leg and a dry dry spring don’t exhaust his well of good humour.

‘Any cane toads?’

‘No, no toads. Too dry for them.’

He laughs again.

Not all laugh. The visiting psychologist tell me, ‘I go out to the farms and visit the farmers regularly. In the droughts some despair.’

The temperature reaches forty – in October – and no-one remarks on it. The Bureau predicts a thunderstorm. It duly arrives. One peal of thunder, the temperature falls but the rains do not.

‘How is it on the farm?’ – I enquire of every farmer.

All respond, ‘It’s dry.’

‘Are you worried?’

‘Yes, it’s very dry.’

‘Is this the driest you’ve known it?’

‘2003 was worse. But this is bad…’

No-one says so explicitly but the floods of 2012 were worse than bad. In those few days lives turned, settled families in their dynasties saw nature’s violent face anew.

By the third morning I still had not sighted the river. On previous morning runs I headed north and south. This time I went east. Past the library on the main street in premises vacated by the extinct cinema; past the pool gleaming fluoridated blue; past The Great Artesian Spa; up a rise to the edge of town – and there was the bridge, a modern structure of cement and steel, its slow length elegant against the sky. Below, far below, indolent waters were a silver ribbon. Tall green grasses pleased the eye.

A slender roo, disturbed by this sole intruder, widened the gap in graceful bounds, then stopped and looked me over at leisure. A moment of shared wonder.

At the approach to the bridge a wall of dark granite, cuboidal, taller than me and wider than the hammer-wielder of the first morning, detailed the floods. Undemonstratively, without self-sympathy, in the manner of farmer conversation, the wall of stone gave fact and context:

1864 – 9.56 m,1949 – 4.86 m, floods in 1950, 1954,

then, in February 1956 the waters reached 7 metres; and in April the same year, 9.26 metres. Photographs show island buildings, white against the silent black of inland sea. Some left town. Most remained to face flooding again – in 1983, 1990, 2010. Then came the waters of February 2012, peaking at 9.84 metres, breaking the record of 1864. People speak flatly of ‘before the floods’ and ‘after the floods.’ I hear the same throughout the state.

One farmer replies to my stock enquiry with a quiet,’The dams are both dry. It’s fortunate we have a couple of bores.’ I look at him, his face etched with decades of flood and drought. He knows fortune.

No-one in back in the Collins Street practice uses that expression, it’s fortunate.

Something missing here. Someone not heard, stories not told. Where are the first owners? Further morning runs uncover traces. At the Information Centre an elaborate sign invites me to follow the Yumba interpretive trail: ‘Mon-Thurs mornings.’ Below this a handmade sign amends tour times: ‘Tues and Thurs.’

And to one side a larger, handmade sign advises

NALINGU

ABORIGINAL

CORPORATION

WISH TO ADVISE THE

YUMBA

INTERPRETIVE TRAIL

AND MITCHELL YUMBA

IS CLOSED

UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

But the first people are here. I see them with their ailments and their children at the hospital and the clinic. In the main street, Nalingu has its dusty offices, and just down the same street is the Aboriginal Health Centre. Inside this hive a small lady of middle years buzzes with purpose. She searches my face, wondering whether perhaps I might be a JP. She needs a JP to certify photocopies of documents for the tall Finn standing at my side. He’s jackerooing on a station. (The Finn does not look Aboriginal. But some say I don’t ‘look Jewish.’)

The lady finds time for my questions: Yes, this is a health centre and yes she’s here four days a week helping local Aboriginal people with transport and health appointments in the bigger town one hour east of here. And no, the bigger town doesn’t have a doctor at the Health Centre either, not regularly, just a couple of days a month. ‘But I look after things.’ She tells me all this with evident pride, vibrating with energy and quiet command. She looks up at her curious visitor, radiating confidence and belief in her role. I guess she’s the dynamo of a community that might otherwise not be a community.

Back at the clinic, a tall man in his late fifties has plenty of time to chat. He’s intrigued by the phenomenon of a Jewish doctor way out west; and I’m interested in his experiences as a cattle man. He’s been out here all his life but he sent his daughters to boarding school in the city. I ask my usual questions – how’s the farm going, water, rain, feed?

‘Well it’s hard. If it wasn’t a challenge I’d have to go and find one. But surviving here calls for something. I like that. I like to be tested. Every difficulty demands something of me. I want to create, I don’t want a dull existence. I’m lucky with my life here.’ He smiles, a smile of good teeth and good skin, the smile of broad vitality. Why has he come to see me today? ‘I’m well, but I spend my life in the sun. Will you check my skin? Any other tests or checks a fifty-eight-year old should have?’

We do the medical stuff then conversation resumes. He employs backpackers from around the world. ‘I look for people others won’t take – people with problems. With patience you find the goodness in a person and help them become productive. I’ve had alcoholics. They come to the station, I let them dry out, I expect them to be temperamental until they settle. Then you find the person with a problem has some drive that might have got them into trouble; now they have a chance to direct the drive productively. There’s pride in that. A small start to a better way. After three months they leave, and we are both winners.’

The cow man has questions for me – about my origins, any children, a wife? He tells me about his girls, working in distant places, how he encourages them to pursue their passions in their occupations, not to settle for work that won’t fulfill them.

‘Have you been to Israel, doctor?’ – in the city this is the litmus question of my decency, out here it’s a question couched in curiosity or envy.

‘Israelis inspire me. They have never had it easy but you can see their drive to survive. And they do it by innovation, by creativity. They’ve never had enough rainfall where they are, but they farm, they feed their people and they have create a surplus to export.’

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