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
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.
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.
Doomadgee, we write it
In our orthography
Really should be
No flag raising here
No speech or ceremony
On Australia Day
River runs warm
Kiddies swim and swarm
On Australia Day
In Australian passion
On Australia Eve
Here in Doomadgee
Broken hand, broken
Jaw, cut faces and more:
That’s Australia Day
Too far away
This Australia Day
A busy day this
In the hospital
We plaster, we suture
Like there’s no future:
Future no feature
of Australia Day,
Not here, no way,
The end of Australia Day –
In hospital halls
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).