What we do is we have an idea and then we tell someone. If we don’t it stays within the confines of our skull. If we decide to share it with someone else we might dance it, we might sing it, draw it or write it but the transfer of ideas to our fellows is what we call culture.
I’ve seen the cathedrals, I’ve heard Beethoven, seen the painting Guernica, read Keating’s Redfern speech but the idea that takes my breath away is the decision made around 70,000 years ago when a million people were consolidating a revolutionary idea. Somehow the minds of the people coalesced around the origins of life and how it might be protected, sustained.
The people understood that they born from the earth and that their obligation was to protect a discrete section of the continent. Languages flourished within the discretion of those boundaries, cultural and economic trades were formalised, land management rules were developed, methods of transferring that information to far corners of the continent devised.
The transmission probably took the form of song, dance, art, story and even transmissible dream. It didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now how that transfer took place as long as it was successful because the idea not the form was the most important thing.
Australia hasn’t begun to grapple with the idea of the Aboriginal economic and spiritual philosophy because it simply does not have the intellectual tools. If the tools were available then we would be doing a better job of understanding our own history and the obvious achievements of Aboriginal civilization. Surely we are not withholding the application of those tools out of spite!
The explorers witnessed Aboriginal people operating large scale economies: irrigating crops, living in beautifully designed villages of over 1,000 people and building large sophisticated houses, some capable of housing over 40. So, that information is not unavailable it’s just unknown. Why don’t we make the effort to know it?
Most large libraries have the explorers’ diaries so why don’t we read them? And when we do read them why don’t we query their descriptions of the manicured parklands they encountered? True, most of the explorers couldn’t credit this landscape to the management of Aboriginal people, but 200 years later it should occur to anyone with a university education.
Waiting for Australian academies to latch on to these ideas has been a waste of time. We’re finding that our best results are when we go our own way outside the usual academic channels. We are using digital publishing in various forms. Our language committee has developed an application that allows communities to store language on their computers and retrieve it in sentences, film, photographs or audio files. It’s a flexible tool being used across the country and has taken our languages out of the hands of linguists who had a tendency to want to own any language they researched.
We’ve been mucking around with the Night Sky app on our ipads because so much of the information about economic and cultural life is represented in the stars, or more frequently, the spaces between the stars. Apple’s Night Sky is an incredible tool but it is often slow in realising it is looking at southern skies and, of course, never renders the sky in terms of Aboriginal culture. We are looking at producing a First Nations version.
My most recent poem, Grooves, is being used in a Poetry app by the Redroom Company who are trying to re-invigorate the reading of verse. A computer app sounds a perfect way to make the form relevant and accessible.
But the baby and bathwater principle still holds. Remember the cover for Isobelle’s Little Fur? How can you capture that in any other than medium? The best cover I’ve ever seen is Robert Dessaix’s, Night Letters. It’s so simple and elegant I would never want to read that book without the image of the Venetian lion on the cover. Part of our job as writers and artists is to render beauty and the book does it incredibly well.
If you want to investigate some of the ideas Aboriginal Australia holds dear I recommend these clunky old books: Bill Gammage’s new book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, (A&U 2011), Rupert Gerritsen’s, The Origins of Australian Agriculture (2009), and my, Dark Emu, (Magabala 2013). Gerritsen’s books are available as digital versions and Dark Emu will have on-line components when it is released.
It doesn’t matter how this information is received as long as it is. How can a country claim intellectual maturity and moral probity without some encounter with these ideas?
Alright, so much for the amusing and frothy sherbert, now for the serious discussion…