Finished Painting

Here are some photos of the finished paintwork on the fish we’re building for Thursday’s Gapuwiyak Festival. The design is inspired by concepts the students came up with during a studio workshop a couple of weeks back. Tomorrow they’ll add the lights and bottles and then we’ll be ready to party! The turtle is also nearly finished. Mahra is adding the last few bottles onto the shell at the time of writing. Can’t wait to take some night time photos when everything is lit up.

A few week’s back I wrote a letter describing how the idea for this project came about. You can read it here. And I’ll be posting a full project journal detailing the process from start to finish when its all over.

Letters Home #10 "Forgiveness"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #10 “Forgiveness"

Give me confusion and forgive me my pride,
All I wanted was improvement.
(Daniel 15:09)

Right now I’m at my desk. Its a large dining table positioned slightly off centre in a room fifteen paces by five. The table is made of wood, has a hazelnut stain, a simple box apron and four turned legs. Its not so old to demand special treatment, nor so young to be without a story. It has two chairs, one faces a window, the other - at its head - faces into the room. I sit mostly in the former, though sometimes I work in the latter - which is where I am now.

At night before bed I like to work with the front door open. That way the room fills with cool dark air and the scent of campfires. One night the porch light turned on and behind the screen door stood a tabby cat. She was ash grey with charcoal stripes and yellow eyes. I’d been writing for hours and mostly about longing so I saw in those eyes a welcome intrusion. I opened the door and she came in, circled me a few times then brushed her coat against my legs and the legs of my table. I sat on the floor and watched her with caution. She came up, rolled on her back and purred at my touch. I felt flush with warmth and I smiled. 

I told a friend about the cat. She cooed a little and said she often thought about taking in a stray cat, or a dog. There are so many around. The dogs are battered and cats make good housemates. I reminisced about my old cat called Blue, the way he used to sleep on my chest. A few weeks later my friend found a kitten and kept it. I went round to visit and the little grey huntress was chasing lizards. I laughed and cheered her on. But my friend wasn’t amused. She complained that the lizards were native and since the cat moved in she hadn’t seen so many around. I found myself siding with the cat. “Leave her be,” I said, “she lives here too."

A week later I was out bush with some Yolngu Rangers. They’re employed for the purpose of conservation and land management. In many ways they stand on rare common ground between Yolngu knowledge and Western science. We visited a dry river bed. The ground beneath our feet was broken into big chunks of caked mud. The work of feral pigs and buffalo. Years ago, the Rangers said, the river bed was flat, green and abundant with water chestnuts. Now its a salty barren badlands. 

Years ago people collected the chestnuts and found water by the sound of small birds, whose twills and chirps inspired melodies for songs, and whose movements were made into dances. Children learned the dances and recognised the birds. They passed on the knowledge and seldom went thirsty. Years later the birds flew away. Too many cats. The people kept dancing and singing. Children kept learning but they couldn’t see the birds. The old people told them how they used to find water. But the children drank from taps and were thirsty.

On World Indigenous People Day they celebrated their culture with songs and dances, stories and dreams that everyone agreed should be preserved and protected. Don’t forget who you are, the children were told, don’t forget where you come from. Be proud of your roots and your culture. Learn the stories and dreams, help pass them on. Take care of this land. And across the nation people will honour you whenever they meet. They will pay their respects to you and your elders, past present and future.

A child raised his hand. “Are their stories about cats?” he asked.
“Cats?” his teacher echoed.
“Yes, cats!” said the child. “I know to be proud of my culture and to take care of this land. So what should I do about cats?”

His teacher conferred with the Rangers. It was their job to conserve and manage the land. But the Rangers weren’t sure. They’d tried killing the cats, but people kept them as pets, so inevitably the problem outlived that solution. They’d encouraged people to keep them indoors and have them desexed. But some left them be, to hunt and prosper. After all, they lived there too. There was word of a new innovation from overseas but it would be years before the innovation itself would reach the Rangers.

The teacher returned disappointed. “I’m sorry,” he said to the child, “the Rangers aren’t sure. Yolngu knowledge has nothing to tell about cats, and Western science tells stories about future technology."

The child raised his hand, which was unusual. Both for the fact that the teacher stood right in front of him and for the unlikelihood that there might still be a question to ask. “What about Western knowledge?” said the child.
Knowledge?” replied his teacher.
“Yes!” said the child. “Does your culture have stories about cats?”

The teacher was stunned. Who am I? He thought. Where do I come from? Does my culture have stories about cats? He recalled with some difficulty a time when his culture was also made of stories and dreams. They were stories about heroes and heroins and the spirits that dwelt in unseeable spaces. But something had happened - he tried to remember - people searched for spirits but couldn’t find them. So they consulted the Rationalists, who’s job it was to reveal and manage the truth. The Rationalists had technology that could see into unseeable spaces. But they couldn’t see any spirits and soon the people stopped telling their stories. After all, they knew who they were and where they came from, but now they were somewhere new.

“I’m sorry,” said the teacher. “I don’t know any stories about cats.”
The child scrunched his face so that his lips were crumpled and his eyes scanned the air just out of reach to his left. After a few seconds deep in thought he raised his hand.
“Yes?” said the teacher.
“How about snakes?”
“Snakes?”
“Yes. Do you have any stories about snakes?”
The teacher hesitated, “I guess so… but they’re only myths.”
“Whats a myth?” said the child.
“Kind of a story. An old story - but more like a dream. It isn’t —“ the teacher stopped. There was a word on the tip of his tongue but he wasn’t quite sure what it meant. He looked at the child and took a deep breath. “Okay," he began, “I’ll tell you the story. Once there was a beautiful garden, full of plants and animals and fresh flowing water. A man and a woman lived there and took care of the land. It was a time before knowledge and the man and woman didn’t know who they were. They weren’t afraid and never went hungry. Nothing did. One of the trees in the garden was called the tree of knowledge. But the man and the woman weren’t supposed to eat from that tree."
The child was rapt. “Was there a snake in the garden?”
The teacher smiled at the child’s curiosity and felt encouraged to continue the telling. “Yes. There was a snake. It was subtle and smart, it lived in the tree of knowledge and it spoke to the woman. It told her to eat from the tree and find out who she was.”
The child raised his hand and the teacher laughed. “I think I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “You’re going to ask why she wasn’t supposed to know who she was.”
“Yes!” said the child, “Why not?”
“Well, the garden was only for people who didn’t know. If she ate the fruit, she’d have to leave.”
“So what did she do?”
“She ate the fruit.”
“And she had to leave?”
“Yes, and the man too. They left together.”
“Where did they go?”
“Well, they didn’t go anywhere. More like, they woke up.”
“You mean it was all a dream?”

The child was confused and so was the teacher. He felt some embarrassment at having told the story. Such things were no longer told to children and perhaps for good reason. Then he felt the child’s hand enter his own. It brushed the skin of his palm and was dry and soft like a petal. The child’s interest was innocent and genuine. He couldn’t know the tension these stories conjured in the hearts and minds of teachers. “You know what?” he asked.
The teacher hoped for once the child had an answer, “What?” he replied.
“I know who you are!”
Surprised, the teacher turned to the child. He wanted so desperately to know that he laughed a little and casually said, “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah! You’re the same as me. Your job is to care for the land.”
The teacher felt flush with warmth. “I guess you’re right.”
The child scrunched his face in thought. “Now if only we had a story about cats.”

The next morning I woke up and went to the shop to buy some pears. A man I know barrelled in after me and asked if I’d like to go hunting with some men. I said I would, it was my first hunt. Soon I sat by a river with kangaroo on a fire and blood on my hands. Later I stood at the home of a mythical python snake. Later still I helped skin the first buffalo I’d ever seen. On our way home we washed in the river as the sun was setting and the men suggested we say a prayer of thanksgiving, for a day so flush with life.

I can’t say who I prayed to, but I know what I prayed for. I prayed for forgiveness.

Subscribe

Letters Home #9 "Portrait of a Buffalo Boy"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #9 “Portrait of a Buffalo Boy"

B— is a burly man with a wide gait and steel barrels for hands. His belly is a barrel. So too his chest. And like many men who spend their lives with raw materials, B—’s chest is full of a coarse humour that to some would seem insensitive, but to those with a sense for it is the very softness of his skin. For its well known that men of tools trade in a secret currency of quips and slangs who’s value is measured by the extent to which they draw smiles from life's harshness. A man is rich who can make another man laugh. And in that regard B— is a baron. He is known around town as the Dusty Welder. A name he chose. Its on his business cards and embroidered into his orange and blue workwear. The Dusty Welder travels the country from Ulladulla to Arnhem Land, educating young and old in a trade he loves.

In Gapuwiyak B— trains a group of rustic makers called the MEP Buffalo Boys. MEP stands for Miwatj Employment & Participation Ltd. An organisation that formed in 2013 to carry out the federal government’s Community Development Program by creating paid opportunities for local men and woman to learn service trades and contribute them to community. The men involved are called Buffalo Boys. They are respected and stand tall even with heavy loads. 

I met B— in a spacious, open air workshop strewn with rudimentary inventions. A sofa made from car seats on two short stacks of steel rims. Several buffalos with bodies made of barrels, heads, horns and legs from scrap, a couple of pot belly stoves and a locomotive oven. In the centre an oversized workbench laden with tools and pieces of kit. B— wore a broad grin when I walked in with Mahra (my friend and colleague), to see him about a turtle and a fish.

B— spent many years boiler-making to industry specifications. One day he put down his tools, picked up the little barrel in himself and said something like, “How about it, kid?” Then he turned back to his tools. This time to play.

After some customary lines of comic courtesy we got down to business. I described the picture in my head and B— ran it through a series of cogs and pulleys in his own. He picked up a piece of chalk and started drawing on the workbench. “Okay, what we do is find a big piece —“ He stopped mid-sentence. As if he’d forgotten something and then remembered something else. He turned and said, “Follow me.” 

So we followed him around the workshop, searching for bits of metal to make it happen. With every find his passion and enthusiasm grew. He’d already started working when we left.

Some people grow up inside and outside. Their affections weather along with their faces. Their memories gather in catalogues, they become worldly, sought out for advice in matters of life experience. People like B— have a child forever behind their eyes, for whom an ageing exterior is a daily surprise. They can never be worldly. But they can be wise. Because wisdom is not a matter of experience so much as a matter of perception.

The following week a group of students visited the Buffalo Boys to collect the frames. B— had prepared a few speeches and the Boys shared their work and activities. There was laughter and pride and the kids returned with a new entry in their list of things to become.

Since then we’ve worked around the clock to get these things made. To make the fish I attached lengths of wire to the frame to form a body. Onto that I laid strips of steel mesh. For the tail I used a piece of old fence. Then a layer of paper mache on the front and rear, ready to paint with student designs. The mid section will remain exposed and house the bottom-halves of plastic bottles. Each fitted with a small LED light and a coin cell battery. The turtle is also underway. Mahra is working on it with help from some students. As part of the project we’ve run weekly workshops, staged a pop-up recycling plant and various design studios. Its been a lot of fun and everyone is looking forward to parading our wares in ten days time.

Its tempting to draw grand conclusions from this story. To reflect on the value of community arts and project based learning. To say something about shared visions and the shared responsibility of carrying them out. Perhaps its the educator in me. Craving a lesson. Or the child making affectations. Its tempting to frame things that way. But the wise thing to do is draw only the story and have it speak for itself.

Subscribe

Postscripts
You can follow the Dusty Welder on his Facebook page.

Gulun Story

In this post I describe a recent bilingual walking, talking, story project aimed at connecting students in years 2 and 3 at Gapwiyak School with traditional ways of knowing and being. The project was inspired by The History of Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory (Springer 2017), which I read in my first few weeks as a volunteer art educator at the school. I’d been puzzling over the problem of literacy in community and trying to understand why kids in a region with a first language other than English are taught solely in English. What I discovered in that book and by speaking with other members of the community is a stunning story of undertaking in the 1970s to make written words from a set of languages that for 40,000 years had only ever been spoken. I won’t go into more detail than that in this post but if you’d like to know the full story about how I came to be doing this project you can read my letters titled “Speechless” and "The Light Side".

After speaking with some Yolngu teachers we decided the best way to start a project like this was with a walk to the lake. There we’d split the boys and girls and the former would learn to build a traditional shade shelter and the latter would make mud babies our of clay wrapped in paperbark and learn about traditional ways to care for the young. The whole experience would be framed with a playful narrative, like a game of ‘house’. And afterwards we’d retell the story in English and in Yolngu Matha and create a storybook.

We made sure that the experience would be open ended, that is, we didn't know what the story would be, only that the theme would be traditional ways of living. What ended up happening was both comical and also tragic (something we hoped would happen) and ever since the kids haven't stopped talking about it. Some highlights were the boys making spears and getting painted up by one of the older boys like warriors, and the infamous snatching of one of the girl's babies by a dingo, which catalysed a group effort to find the baby. Unfortunately she didn't make it, but the story has become a legend. It brought everyone together, provided an opportunity to nurture empathy and inspired a possible direction for the next chapter, the story of death. 

Since that first day, walking to the lake has become a much loved weekly experience. On the days without a Yolngu teacher to accompany us I run the sessions in the way of Nature Education, which I learned to do in my time leading bush school at Centennial Park in Sydney. That approach is a great fit for the Yolngu kids. It involves nature play, eco art, some bushcraft and storytelling.

The success of this project was a collaborative effort between myself, the classroom teacher and two Yolngu assistant teachers. I loved working with them and we continue to have a blast every week. Already new stories are bubbling to the surface to be captured in future books and to inform classroom learning through a ‘both-ways’ frame of reference.

After finishing the book, Jess, the classroom teacher recorded the students and some staff reading the pages and made an audio book that she showcased at a student assembly. I took the recordings and made this video version.

Improvements to the project would be to more carefully transcribe the Yolngu Matha and English translations. I found that when I consulted a few different Yolngu teachers to help with translation, it was hard to know which changes were stylistic and which were linguistic. Of course the days are gone when a team of linguists would be on hand to help but its a start and in the coming weeks we will water this seed and rejoice to discover the last of its fruit.

Letters Home #8 "Alone"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

For context you might want to read/listen to previous letter #7 "Don Quixote".

Letter #8 “Alone"

Since my adoption into Yolngu kinship, I call Rose gnama, which means mother. She calls me wakū, which means son. One day we were sitting together and she said, “Wakū, when you are alone, there are different ways of knowing things.”

Its hard to be alone. Though not for feeling lonely. In solitude an open heart makes intimate friends with anything from alley cats to fence posts, from dreams to an afternoon breeze. It learns the moods of these things and marks the passing of time by their ageing features. Their presence becomes a source of comfort - and should tragedy strike, out of the deepest empathy it suffers their misfortune. In time they become like flesh and blood. So its hard to be alone.

In my last letter I made poems from a wellspring of grief that opened in me. My feelings were wet and flowing. After writing I dreamed a wildfire had burned through my yard in the night and in the morning when I went outside I found the level of the ground lower by several metres. Where once there was only short dry grass, now there was a lush garden. I know to water that garden regularly with wet and flowing feelings, drawn from the cracks in my heart. 

And now I sit by a small fire each evening. A ritual that begins in the afternoon. After work I collect sticks and make a bundle of tinder from a dry vine that grows along my fence. I place the bundle on yesterday’s ashes. Then I crack each of the sticks to the same length. I love that part because a cracked stick gives off a fresh scent and in that regard every stick is unique. With the fire built I go inside to work a while at writing. I rise again at the first hint of dusk and take my notebook outside with a cup of tea to welcome the evening. I’ve two logs for sitting on, in case of guests. Some days I light a stick of sandalwood to keep the mosquitos at bay, on other days - to save money because sandalwood is expensive and I haven’t got much - I dab my bare feet with a mixture of eucalyptus oil and rubbing alcohol and that works too. Then I jot down observations and write little songs until last light, when a pair of tiny bats fly circles after mosquitos over my head and I cheer them on. When they’re gone, I light my fire.

One night I was joined by three kids who walked past and asked if they could visit. Two were around six years old and one was ten. I knew them from school and welcomed the chance to test out my second log. While we sat their mother went to play cards. Its a common pastime, circles of card players are dotted around town. By day they sit under mango trees and by night under street lights. The game is simple. Everyone is dealt two cards. The highest score is ten, made by adding the value of the cards. A seven and an eight makes five. There are two rounds of betting. Winners walk to the shop. Losers go home hungry. The kids and I traded magic tricks and they taught me a few new words of Yolngu Matha. Eventually the younger ones were called to bed and it was just me and the older one. We sat silently together for a long time. He’s a good kid. We tore strips of bark from the logs, to make them smooth. And we gathered dry grass from around the fire to clear a circle. Eventually I called it a night and said he was welcome to join my fire the next day. He hasn’t come back.

That’s the thing about time alone. Its a private freedom in which a well watered heart makes room for new connections. And no matter how many times the heart sees an evening sky, or sips tea to the breeze, or learns to let things go - it feels everything as though for the first time.

So I wrote this song.

Now I’m not the first to sing it,
Nor will I be the last,
A thousand hearts before my own
Have seen these words go past.

Seen them enter in a twilight spell
Come floating on the breeze,
Watched them leave through broken promises
And prayers said on the knees.

They are the bible waters
That came flowing from a stone,
And we learned to treat them kindly
Lest we die all on our own.

And we learned that they are beautiful
We learned their power too -
When we threaded them through syllables
We made them feel anew.

For no matter how familiar
Is the background to our pain,
There is no heart that will not break
Again - and again.

So let us greet the dreamer
As though he were a friend,
May we learn to be forgiving
Any harshness that he sends.

May we keep our gardens watered
May we whisper to our stones,
May we never stop remembering
All the things we learn alone.

Subscribe

Personal Note #7 "Don Quixote"

You can listen to this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Today I’m in Arnhem Land, in a town of a thousand people, in what was formerly a high school science lab. Now its home to a three metre square frame of welded rebar shaped like a turtle, resting atop a pair of old bicycle wheels. Its shell is a layer of steel mesh that will soon house three hundred plastic bottles and three hundred LED lights. Tomorrow it will be joined by a fish, currently a few hundred meters away in a metal workshop run by kind men with rough hands who call themselves Buffalo Boys. The sculptures are a community art project aimed at addressing the critical issue of litter. Next month, at the town festival, they'll be part of a nighttime parade down the main road. Next week, having completed all of my placement hours, I’ll be a fully fledged Art Therapist. Which begs the question, 'How on earth did I get here?'

I was born a python snake in a rocky part of Africa.

After high school I struggled to keep up with a world that was bigger than I expected. Three years into a Law degree I was barely treading water, tormented by a future that was leaving me behind. 

Though I enjoyed the company of others, from an early age I felt better off alone. It was something about my nature.

Too proud to ask for help I found ways to stay still - mainly drugs and alcohol. Also bitterness and resentment for life’s broken promises. I disguised those feelings in a claim to know better than the small minded expectations of a world I didn’t need.

One day I met a turtle. We had a lot in common. She had a beautiful shell that made me feel safe and protected. For a while we followed the sun together. 

I found a balm in her beating heart. The most powerful drug I’d ever taken.

But she migrated a great distance to lay her eggs. Which was devastating for me. I tried to make her stay but the only way I knew was constriction. 

After she left I felt tightness everywhere. My skin began to crack and dry and then it came off altogether. Underneath I was sensitive to every touch. 

It was the fiercest pain I’d ever known. A darkness so thick I could barely breathe. When I closed my eyes I’d see daemons scratching at my chest. So I made my skin into a hard shell and crawled inside.

I wore that shell everywhere, added every skin I shed. I longed to be a turtle. But of course, I was a snake.

I started out at law school learning common law and torts,
Then spent some time with bankers and learned to read reports.
I spent some time with hippies and learned to stretch and play,
I spent some time with Buddhists and learned the silent way.
I spent some time with artists, made meaning with my hands,
I spent some time with activists and learned to make demands.
I spent some time with clowns and learned to play the fool,
I spent some time with handymen and learned to use their tools.
I spent some time with teachers and learned to set more goals,
In the time I spent with preachers, I learned about my soul.
I spent some time in therapy and found a way to heal,
Sometimes I still have trouble - discerning what is real.
I still don’t feel quite worthy, of love’s divine embrace,
I haven’t ceased my striving to make something in its place.
Nor have I stopped from searching for a balm to heal my sores,
But boy am I more interesting than I ever was before!

Now my shell’s grown heavy and I have half a mind to set it down. But when you’ve been a turtle for so long, a snake is quite the adjustment.

So I wrote myself a note.

Its to anyone who’s listening, in a crisis of their own,
If you’re stranded in uncertainty and feeling so alone.
If it seems as though you’re drowning and you don’t know what is real,
If darkness is the colour of everything you feel.
Know that you are capable of rising to this task,
Start by thinking of yourself as someone you can ask.
All it takes is one small step don’t worry bout the end,
Consider it a mystery what waits around the bend.
With every step you’ll feel more brave the daemons will grow small,
Eventually they’ll disappear, they won’t be there at all.
And looking down you’ll realise your feet are on dry land,
And the daemons in your nightmares are now gold dust in your hands.
Then you’ll have a story and your eyes will fill with tears
As you tell the people gathered how on earth you made it here.

Postscripts

Next week I’ll be telling new stories. Starting with that of the Buffalo Boys.

Subscribe

Letters Home #6 "The Light Side"

This letter is available to listen to on a Remote Voice podcast. Here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #6 “The Light Side"

Watching the sky to the east, it appears as though the day begins when the sun arrives, and similarly, that the moon rises when the sun sets. However, from a stellar distance we'd see that the sun and the moon stay relatively still, while the earth spins between them. Thus, like figureheads on the prow of a cosmic ship - like sea lions lazing on a galactic shore, it is we who turn to the sun each morning, and each evening we turn to the moon. 

I dreamt up that analogy late one afternoon under a purpling sky. What a beautiful image, I thought. Like a proud cat I arched my back and gave a little purr. Then a chorus of birds erupted into song. Like tiny angels. I closed my eyes. It was all I could do amidst the cacophony to keep myself from expecting to hear the voice of God. In the back of my mind a deluded sage rehearsed his reply. Stay humble, he thought, but also measured and assertive. We wouldn’t want God to think that of all the great poets to receive his message, this time he’d chosen one without a spine. Suddenly the chorus gave way. And from the north a sound rippled through the silence towards me. I opened my arms to the heavens, ready to take my place among the ascended saints - then it hit me - like a bucket of cold water - a raucous cackle. A Kookaburra laughing. I felt shame gather in my cheeks and pool in my eyes. Then erupt from my mouth in a laugh of my own. O Kookaburra! I thought, now you’ve seen me naked! And what can I do, but laugh?

In my last letter I wrote my way out of the impulse to start a revolution. Nevertheless, with my feet on the ground, there remained a need for bilingual education at Gapuwiyak School. So I spoke with some Yolngu teachers and organised to run bilingual lessons during my time with the students. They were thrilled. And the balanda teachers I spoke to had long harboured thoughts along bilingual lines but hadn’t the time to know where to start. So in the end, the best response to a grand problem was a small gesture. 

On the day of our first bilingual session, walking down to the lake, one of the elder Yolngu teachers, Kath, took me aside for a word of advice. We’d planned to have the boys build a traditional shelter called a warro. And for the girls to wrap mud babies in paperbark and learn traditional ways to care for the young. Like a big game of 'house'. Afterwards the students would turn the game into storybooks for future reading practice. With regard to the game, said Kath, we should try and make it funny. If its too serious they won’t understand. I didn’t quite know what she meant, but I followed her lead. 

As planned, the girls made mud babies and wrapped them in paperbark. They built a small nursery and put the babies to sleep. But when a curious dog approached, Kath took the opportunity - with a big smile - to pretend that one of the babies had been snatched by a dingo. She rallied the girls and they rushed to the boys, who by then were under their shelter, painted like warriors with chalky clay. Laughing, the girls relayed the terrible news, and together we searched for the baby. It was eventually found. But it hadn't survived. So together we mourned. And next week we’ll hold a pretend funeral. The children can’t wait. Funerals are a deeply significant part of Yolngu culture so it will be a wonderful opportunity to continue the serious task of continuity. 

Comedy has a way of bringing light to the darkness, making some things easier to see. Which got me thinking about a problem I’ve been puzzling over since I arrived in Arnhem Land six weeks ago. Litter. Its everywhere. In a previous letter I called it the shrapnel left by the bomb blast of modern life. Bottles, bags and various bits and pieces line the streets. Many subscribe to the belief that a population accustomed to biodegradability will take some time to adjust to plastics. But watching people walk by huge bins and brightly coloured signs, I'm beginning to think that any ignorance is more likely the turning of a blind eye. Out here the shop is closest thing to a pub. And some of the problems people face lay at the feet of a diet replete with soft drinks and bread. So it could be that picking up litter would mean taking a good look at insidious lethargy and poor health. A difficult task. But there’s a way. 

Next month there’s going to be a big festival in Gapuwiyak. I joined forces with another artist and we devised a plan to use plastic bottles to build giant animal sculptures with the kids, who loved the idea. Then parade them on the night of the festival. To get started we got out some wheelbarrows and turned up the reggae, then danced our way around town collecting bottles. Our good humour attracted welcome attention from the Buffalo Boys, a group of men who spend their time turning scrap metal into everything from bench seats to barbecues. We enlisted their help to fashion the frames. Its become a collaboration. Who knows, perhaps these sculptures will be the good hearted gesture that makes staring down the bottle that little bit easier.

Subscribe

Letters Home #5 "Speechless"

Notes
If you'd like to get in touch to share your response or thoughts about this letter I'd welcome your feedback. Here are my contact details.

Okay, here goes...

Letter #5 “Speechless"

Each day before setting the sun exhales a warm breeze, to brush from the sky any lingering clouds that a few lost souls might navigate by the stars. Then the crackle of burning grass rises from fires in front of every home. And the street lights, stationed to preside over vacant patches of territory like soldiers of the Queen’s Guard, flicker into resolute attention. Its in the uncertain, in between stretches of shadowy dust that a mix of humble glow and determined incandescence do their best to share responsibility for lighting the way. 

In Arnhem Land the saying goes that foreigners are either missionaries, misfits, mercenaries or madmen. Which am I? Perhaps I’m a missionary. I come with books about history and talk passionately about ways we can work together for a better future. I frame the world in stories and revere the depth that lurks between their lines. I’m forever seeking the answers to an endless list of questions I scribble on pieces of paper that I stuff into a hand stitched shoulder bag, patched in places with the discarded artwork of children under ten. So I could be a madman. Yet I’m also a misfit. I enjoy the solitude out here, space to think and feel in my own time, far from crowds and traffic and banal conversation. There’s no pressure to fit in where a little strangeness is expected. As for a mercenary, well… 

The other day, in preparation to teach a group of kindergarteners, I approached one of the Yolngu assistants who sits in on every class. Like many Yolngu women in their late forties, B— is overweight, diabetic and moves languidly on skinny legs and bare feet. She is humble to the point of timidity - but when I asked her for a quick chat - I saw in her eyes that she is also fierce. I told B— that I wanted to try something different that day. That I would sit the kids in a circle and give them each a piece of paper and some crayons. Then I would tell them that they were going to hear a very special story. At that point, when their little minds were tickled with anticipation, I’d give B— the signal to begin telling the children about her life as a young girl in Gapuwiyak. B— was initially shy about the idea, but it didn’t take much in the way of encouragement to get her on board and together we walked into the classroom.

In the story she told, B— was a young girl playing by the lake. Her favourite game was to gather some mud from the bank and fashion it into a little baby doll, then wrap the doll in paperbark and carry it around like the mother she would one day become. She’d carry it home to a nearby shelter she shared with her parents and siblings. It consisted of a raised platform of sticks suspended between four trees. There was a small fire underneath and a ladder to climb to and from the landing, on which spread out a few beds of soft paperbark beneath a slanted roof. When B—’s family had to leave town to visit some nearby kin for a ceremony, or to gather seasonal foods, they would burn the shelter to the ground. And when eventually they returned, her father, brothers and uncles would build it again. That was less than fifty years ago.

By the end of the story the children were rapt. They asked B— questions and were given explanations for some of the details. Most of them seldom hear stories like that one. I suspect because its hard for people to talk about the old times. So much has changed. So they settle for a fire every night, and they search for somewhere to store the past in houses made of stone.  B— drew a picture of her story on the board and invited the children to do the same. Which they did. Then one by one they carried their pictures to me and I patiently asked them questions about what they’d drawn. Only then, when the children were telling me about their work, were the first words of English spoken. Up to that point everything had been in Yolngu Matha, the language children speak at home and in the playground. The language of their parents and grandparents, the language of their world. 

In the seventies a team of linguists arrived in Arnhem Land to learn that language. Their efforts resulted in the production of an entire body of literature, made up of people's stories, along with an entirely new alphabet to store them in print. They also developed a method of instruction to teach a generation of Yolngu people how to read and write a language that for 40,000 years had only ever been spoken. I think sometimes we forget that we had to learn English at school to be able to read and write - that literacy isn’t the same as learning to speak. And sometimes we forget that no matter how many classes we took in French, the only people to learn it had to go to France. Important things to remember in Arnhem Land. Because there hasn’t been bilingual education here since the turn of the century. So children can’t read or write the language that they speak. And beyond the school walls no one speaks English, so they can’t really speak it either. I mean they can ask for a glass of water. But they can’t describe what it feels like to be unable to read letters from their grandparents or write letters to their future children. What it feels like to live in the shadowy dust between worlds, where a dying language struggles to be understood, with every laboured breath.

I can tell you what that looks like. One day I saw it, sitting with a teacher and some children. It was World Indigenous People Day and she was trying to teach them about goko (honey). She said, “We have fifteen words for goko, each with a story to tell. You can use the stories to find the goko in the bush.” The children smiled and listened. Most of them no longer learn this sort of thing from their parents. Then the teacher wrote the fifteen words for honey on fifteen pieces of paper and handed them to the children. Their expressions flattened. They no longer understood. I watched the teacher take a deep breath and plead with the children to concentrate. A dog started barking and over the noise they could barely hear her. She cried, “Someone needs to know these words! Each one has a story to tell!” But the children couldn’t help her. Then a man arrived. He had clap sticks and he tried to teach the children to dance. He told them it would help them learn the words. But the children were too shy and the dog wouldn’t stop barking, they couldn’t feel the rhythm and the words blew away. Then the teacher turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I felt so helpless. And angry too. Enough to take up arms and join the resistance. I went home and read the biographies of Nelson Mandela and Mandawuy Yunupingu, the entire History of Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory and various articles on the related politics. Then I wrote down step by step instructions for how to organise a socio-political movement to bring back bilingual education. By the time I’d finished it was late at night. I was sitting in a candlelit room clutching my marching orders between clenched fists, listening to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. I made it to Track 3: Dress Rehearsal Rag.

"It’s come to this, 
Yes it’s come to this,
And wasn’t it a long way down, 
Wasn’t it a strange way down?”

Full of taunts and tenderness that song is written to a man on the verge of suicide. Its a chilling reminder of just how quickly a broken heart begins to lust for blood. When the song finished I shivered and chuckled to myself. How close I'd come to joining a war. Then I folded my marching orders and held them to the flame. 

I may be a missionary, a misfit and a madman, but watching that paper burn I made a promise to myself that I would not become a martyr. But instead remain a dreamer, with stories to tell.

Subscribe

Letters Home #4 "Interrelated"

Notes
If you'd like to receive these letters by email, subscribe here.

Letter #4 “Interrelated" 

On the night before I left Sydney I sat with my mum in her living room. My mood was depressed. Hers was a typical mix of ease and angst, comfortable in her own skin yet tortured by the fear that her children might be suffering. She asked me a question I’d been asking myself. What did I hope to get out of this trip? I said that for as long as I can remember I’ve been searching for the sound of my own voice. That I hoped to discover which of the contradictory stories I tell myself about who I am and what I’m doing is true. That it would save me a lot of time spent turning down paths for the sake of strangers who scrawl their directions on the inside of my head. At which point she seemed a little less at ease. But to her credit conducted no further investigation. Instead we simply sat together, in the silent wake of my confession.

Early in the piece there were times I’d wake from a restless sleep full of frightful dreams to a feeling of intolerable dread. Periods of hell that lasted several days. At first I suspected a delayed reaction to so rapidly adjusting my diet and climate. Then I suspected a virus or some other contagion. But neither diagnosis accounted adequately for what was not an unfamiliar feeling. In fact I knew it well, felt it for as long as I could remember and most acutely in my stomach. As the phantom pain of a severed cord that once nourished and nurtured me. Only this time it wasn’t food I was going without. It was nourishment of a kind sought by the soul. That voice beneath the surface we take for self. By now I’d run far enough to know that this time I’d do well to turn around and listen. So I did. And there I found a dreamer, holding a pen, longing to tell his story. I gathered him in my arms and carried him to a desk and chair. While his fingers tumbled sentences I made him cups of tea. And when he finished a page I read it back to him and listened for his suggestions. We sat together, the way we’re sitting now, grateful to have found a way to be heard.

And I’ve made progress on other fronts. I set up a new workshop space for high school kids who aren’t managing regular attendance, called it ‘Young Artists’. We meet Monday and Tuesday afternoons to hang out and paint whatever’s on hand. And there’s plenty on hand. I chose an area of the school formerly occupied by discarded building materials. Sheets of corrugated iron, concrete boards, pieces of timber and decommissioned wheelbarrows. There’s also a picnic table for those preferring to sip cold water and shoot the breeze. I seek out the kids who’ve taken to scribbling insolent tags on walls and doors. I say to them, "Practice here as much as you want, because honestly, the way you write 'Fuck You’ is pretty amateurish.” They laugh. We both know I’m not going to solve the graffiti problem, but at the very least I’m hoping to improve the graffiti standard. And deeper than that, I’m hoping to provide a space for these kids to play out the tension between the kind of individualism they see on the internet, and the kind of interrelatedness they’ve inherited.

Since my official adoption by a Yolngu family I’ve caught a glimpse of that interrelatedness. Before I describe it let me just say, I am by no means an expert in Yolngu kinship. My only hope for this incomplete account is to communicate something of its staggering sublimity.

"Ngarraku gnama dhuwal R—.” 
“My adopted mother is R—.” 

Strange as it may seem, that simple phrase connects me to a living system of information so complex that comparing it to the whole of the internet is an oversimplification. When I tell it to someone that person knows immediately by what familial title I’m to be called. Examples include Wawa, which means uncle; Mukul, which means aunty; Yapa, which means sister and Wakū (pronounced wa-ko), which as it turns out, means son. Confused? I was too. But then I learned about an important aspect of the system. That is, upon adoption I was assigned one of eight possible skin names. You can think of a skin name like a tribal affiliation. But children are not born into the same tribe as their parents. Instead they’re assigned a skin name on a rotating basis. And marriages are predestined by lore and custom to take place between particular tribes. So assuming I were to marry according to lore and custom, its effectively possible to know the set of people who would make up my kin and in-laws. Hence there are people in my network that call me Bapi, which means father. Again, its worth emphasising that we don’t really have English words for the kind of kin relationships that exist in Yolngu culture. But for the purposes of this account I’m going to talk about the relationship between Gnama and Wakū using the English words mother and son. As in Western culture, mother and son interact in a customary way. Son is nurtured by mother, who in turn fulfils an obligation to guide and instruct. That includes passing on specific knowledge that son needs to know. And the way that knowledge is passed on is through song, story, dance and ritual. In Yolngu culture as in Western culture, there are songs that mothers traditionally sing to their sons. However, where things differ is that in Yolngu culture the songs that mothers sing are not generic. To understand what I mean you need to know two details about Yolngu personhood. First, every Yolngu person is related to a specific geographic location, determined by the moment during pregnancy when the spirit of the person is said to have entered the body. Thus, when a mother sings to her son, she sings from one specific place to another. Hence the term ‘songline'. Her songs may include information about the history of the place, where it is, how to take care of it, and the kinds of things that might be sought there. Second, every kin relationship is mapped onto specific parts of the body. For example, Gnama relates to the heart and belly. Thus the songlines weave psychosomatic connections between people and places. So much so that sons relate to the land of their mothers in the same way they relate to the mothers themselves. Mind blown? I hope so. Its a lot to take in. So Yolngu people keep track of it all through a host of rituals and ceremonies. For example, they might paint colours and patterns that symbolise particular kin relationships on specific parts of the body during ceremony. Along with other kinds of information, such as relationships with totem animals, elements and groups of people. But I’ll leave that for another day. For now its enough to consider what it might be like for a teenager born into a network of cosmic interrelatedness to listen to songs from the canon of Western pop-culture. Its no wonder they’re responding well to the offer of a space to hang out and paint the walls.

Young Artists is a refuge. And so far its working. As are my formal classes. I’ve made sure to focus them entirely on place, using maps as a scaffold for various kinds of learning. As you might expect given what I’ve described in this and previous letters, nature and arts based education are no brainers out here. That anyone considers it remotely appropriate to apply a national education standard in a place so self evidently unique is at best an absurdity. At worst it runs the risk of repeating the mistakes made by assimilationists in the early part of the twentieth century, who lined people up for a standard mix of force-fed information and washed it down with some superficial accolade. If we only turned around and listened, we’d realise that a disinterested child is more likely the result of inaccessible content than an inability to concentrate. That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever put down a book and said something like, “I just can’t get into it.”

To which I’d respond, “If that’s the case then one of two things is true. Either the writing is of a quality incapable of conjuring sufficient depth of field. Or you don’t have the cultural capital to turn the descriptive language into a meaningful reality.”
Then you might say, “What do you mean?”
And I’d say, “Well, to find a text interesting, its not enough to simply know how to read. The author’s words create a world that you can actually get in to. But the author can’t describe every aspect of that world. He or she assumes you’ll bring a certain amount of prior understanding to the table. To fill in the gaps. If you don’t have that prior understanding, the world the text creates will remain out of reach. It will lack meaning.”
“But some books are read by lots of people across cultures and contexts. How is that possible?”
“Because people are far more alike than different. There are lots of things that overlap cultural boundaries. The more boundaries a thing overlaps the closer it gets to being universal. But the list of books that approach universality is a lot shorter than the list of books per se.”
“Okay, so what you’re saying is kids need to read and write about things they’re interested in. And their interests have a lot to do with culture?”
“Yes.”
“So, what are Yolngu kids interested in?”
“They’re interested in place. They love being on country, making things with their hands and physical activities like sport and hunting.”
“Great. So we should get them to read and write about that!”
“Not so fast.”
“Why?”
“Because they’re not used to reading and writing about those things. They’re used to dancing, singing and painting about them.”
“Does that mean we need to consider alternative approaches to teaching literacy in a Yolngu context?”
“Yes.”
“Sounds challenging. Where do we start?”
“We start by understanding what literacy is at the deepest possible level of interpretation. That way we can create the substructure on which a contextualised form of it can be built.”
“I’d rather not think so deeply about things.”
“I know.”
“So what is literacy at the deepest possible level of interpretation?”
“Its the abstraction of meaning into recognisable symbolic representations arranged relative to one another in space and time.”
“Please explain.”
“Okay. You can’t read a sentence if you don’t know what the words mean. But you also can’t read it if the words aren’t in the correct order, with adequate space between them.”
“So we should begin by teaching kids to abstract information into symbols?”
“Yes.”
“Then arrange those symbols in ways that make them readable?”
“Exactly.”
“And to make things meaningful we should relate everything to nature, art and physical activity?”
“Now you’re getting it.”
“If only there was an art form that used symbols to represent features of specific places in nature. Something that also lent itself to physical activities. Wait a minute… maps!”
“Yep."
“We could create maps of this place! Then add symbols to represent its features and inhabitants. We could go places and visually represent our journeys. Eventually we could even write stories about them, turn them to into maths problems and science experiments! And we’d end up with beautiful artworks that reflected our learning. Would that work?”
“I don’t know. But I’m going to try it. Because the price we pay for dumbing down our language to the point where it can be understood by people we’ve not sought to understand, is a lack of depth. And I’m tired of teaching the dazed and confused."

Subscribe

Postscripts
Since writing this I caught wind of a program called Learning on Country, which uses 'both-ways' education. It looks really interesting. I'll find out more and write a post about it soon.

Maps to Guide Aboriginal Ways of Knowing

How do we repair the parts of our culture that pollute our rivers and keep us anxious?

In the last few years I've followed that question all the way to Arnhem Land. My hypothesis is that if we connect more deeply with place we will feel more at ease and learn what it means to take care of the rivers. That’s assuming there is such a thing as a deeper connection place and that anxiety has something do with displacement. So among other things, I’m Arnhem Land to do some research. I’m particularly interested in ways of connecting to place that involve mapping.

I’m conducting research in three ways. First, by living and learning in the remote home of the oldest surviving land based culture on the planet. Second, by reading as much of the related literature as I can. Third, by mapping the places I visit through an arts based practice that involves sound recording and illustration. As far as the second is concerned, I’m learning with members of the Yolngu community in Gapuwiyak about Aboriginal ways of knowing and communicating. I’m also working with the kids at Gapuwiyak School, facilitating arts based projects that align with and express their interests.

In this post I go a little deeper into mapping as a concept and learning tool. And I share an example of how I'm using mapping in the field.

Its nothing new to say that visual representations describe complex problems in a way that’s easy to read. Even the earliest scientific textbooks, dating back 2,300 years, contain diagrams (see here). Back then, like today, it would be quite a challenge for a science without pictures to appeal to a popular audience.

The same is true for mythology and fiction. In both cases the use of poetic language conjures scenes in the imagination of the reader. A book that fails to create an engaging world - or reader without a suitable catalogue of imagery for the language used - is likely to be put down after a few pages. The reader might then say something like, “I just couldn’t get into it…”

Stories and diagrams with wider appeal than specific cultural or linguistic contexts, tend to tap into a catalogue of imagery that overlaps those boundaries. Where that occurs we begin to find the use of words like archetype. But this is not a post about archetypes. Its about maps.

Maps are spacial images that use a set of symbols, arranged by relative position, to represent a landscape and its features. In nature education topographical maps are often used to teach kids how to orient and navigate, as well as how to identify things in the world based on symbolic representation. Maps are also used to great effect in art therapy, to symbolise and set out aspects of a person’s inner experience. They can be very helpful in alleviating anxieties relating to overwhelm and/or feeling stuck. In both cases the symbols on the map are abstract representations of things actually in the world. In the same way that words are abstract representations of meaning. Only a sentence is harder to understand than a map because its visual dimension is limited to things like the order of words, choice of font and character spacing. That’s why a picture can tell a thousand words.

For a really interesting discussion of the way our minds use symbols to interpret reality I recommend listening to this talk on the Neuropsychology of Symbolic Representation by Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, Dr Jordan Peterson.

In education, visual representations of information are common. Students will often be asked to draw and interpret diagrams. And they will often be encouraged to create posters or mind maps that help them explain and understand concepts. But there is seldom an emphasis on those visual representations having anything to do with geography or topography. Indeed topographical maps are usually stowed away for the few weeks of the year when teachers see fit to tick the much maligned geography boxes in their handbook of curricular outcomes. Either that or they hang on the wall like laminated afterthoughts, shyly suggesting that things might be different someplace else.

But there is a missed opportunity in that approach. Because the thing about maps is that they have an almost infinite capacity for the storage of information on multiple levels of analysis. On an outline of Australia its possible to lay out everything from variations in temperature to the structure of liberal democracy. Not only that but geographical maps can also represent time and travel. Its possible to mark out journeys from one point to another. And its possible to represent symbolically what happened or might happen along the way. Which opens things up into the realm of literacy and storytelling. And there’s more. By virtue of their speciality, maps attract some of the most breathtaking applications of geometry imaginable. All in a language we’re hardwired to understand. 

Add to that the fact that using maps in this way creates a list of affordable learning excursions into the world that kids actually inhabit, and you are beginning to tap into the potential for map making as a tool for connecting to place.

Okay, time for some examples.

Gapuwiyak is a town that I described in another post as being the size of a postage stamp. Its positioned adjacent to a lake with a diameter of around 1km during the dry season. Surrounding the town and lake on all sides is a forest of eucalyptus, grass trees, shrubs and the occasional cyprus pine.

The first thing I do with every class is bring up an image of the area on Google Maps. Whether I’m planning to go down the path of literacy or artistry and no matter the age group, I start with that image. I look at it with the kids, move it around a little and point out some land marks. Basically I spend some time adjusting to the idea that this will be our frame of reference. Then I go into what I have planned. Here is an example from primary school class I'm taking for 90 minutes each week. The example documents the first two of those weeks to date.

Project Title “Rali (Here)”

This project aims to establish a bilingual frame of reference and provide some explanation for its relevance, provide a narrative, arts based scaffold for curricular education, ground that education in place and experience and cultivate a sense of shared responsibility and belonging.

To be continued...

I'll post other examples of this sort of thing from various angles and with various age groups in the coming weeks. If you'd like to subscribe to receive my letters and updates by email please use the form in the side or at the bottom of the page or click here.

Letters Home #3 "Remote Voices"

Notes
Thanks to everyone for your continuing support in reading these letters. I've posted a collection of photos relating to this one at the end of the post.

Letter #3 "Remote Voices"

The other night I dreamed I was in a park, waiting to see a man about a horse. It was a white horse and I planned to have my photo taken with it. But when the man arrived I saw that the horse was emaciated. Through its white skin I could see every one of its ribs. I gathered some hay and went to offer food to the horse. But the man stopped me. He said the horse was on a strict diet. I implored the man to let me feed the horse but he was adamant. I said he was abusing the horse, that I had no choice but to call the Police. An officer arrived but he was unable to help. So I went with him to petition the superintendent. He too was unable to help. So I met with the lawyer, who tried to make a case but eventually had to give up. Thus I found myself standing in the hall of the President. I was nervous but pretended not to be when I barged into his office and sat down. The President was a fat man with an oversized monobrow pasted to his forehead. He sat behind a large wooden desk. I wasn’t sure whether to trust the President but I told him that something ought to be done. He responded calmly and somewhat assured. He said the problem was more complex than I knew, that I hadn’t every side of the story. I was unsatisfied, but I’d reached the end of a road and I woke up.

On my second day in Gapuwiyak I met Judy Davey. Judy was one of a handful of pioneering missionaries to arrive here in 1969 with enough saw milling equipment to start a town. She was sent by an organisation called Methodist Overseas Mission (MOM), one of two organisations that many people hold responsible for some of the darkest social policies in Australia’s history. In the first half of the twentieth century, efforts to ‘protect’ and ‘assimilate’ Aboriginal people achieved stolen children and terrestrial alienation. Yet for all the tragedy that lies at the feet of MOM - and there is no shortage of it - by the time Gapuwiyak was established the missionaries were in principle committed to non-interference with Yolngu tradition, self-determination and claims for land rights, and they preached a contextualised brand of Christianity that allowed Yolngu to appropriate tenets of the faith from their own frames of reference. I don’t intend to go any further than those principles down the rabbit hole of validity. Suffice to say that Judy told me Gapuwiyak was established in response to fears that BHP, who were mining further north, would make their way into the area. That representatives of 7 or so clans, with homelands stretching 30km in every direction, shared with missionaries a vision for a self sustaining centre for commerce and spirit that would send a message to the mining juggernauts to keep their distance. Several town elders corroborate Judy's story. And so it was that 30 people from a disparate set of distinct groups came together to mill timber, build roads and maintain supplies of water and power. In exchange they received food, tobacco, medical care, protection and education. 

According to Judy, in the early days of Gapuwiyak all decisions were left to a group of community elders. That included the allocation of jobs, the resolution of disputes and the transmission of lore and custom. The missionaries refrained from interfering in traditional ceremonies, of which funerals in particular were a significant part of people’s lives and still are today. In fact, on the day I arrived in Gapuwiyak a funeral ceremony that had been going for two weeks was coming to an end. The sound of clap sticks echoed day and night from the ceremonial grounds in the centre of town. It was too soon after my arrival to presume an invitation but I look forward to satisfying the curiosity summoned by the sound of those clap sticks. Like Judy I came to Gapuwiyak in response to a call to serve this community. In my first four days here I’d already come up with at least that many revolutionary ideas. And on the night before my first day at Gapuwiyak School as a volunteer arts educator, enlisted to run various art projects for community development, I went to bed positively enchanted. That same night I dreamt of the white horse.

The next day only 30 of the 220 children enrolled were in attendance at Gapuwiyak School. The day started with a school-wide march in the streets. Two Yolngu teachers corralled the students and played call and response with slogans beckoning more to attend. Through a loudspeaker they pleaded with a silent town, imploring parents to send their children. It was a demonstration that I’m told takes place twice per term. And during each school day a team of Yolngu Attendance Officers are on alert to dissuade children from leaving during recess and lunch. Inevitably though days end with fewer than they begin, leaving fingers to point in many directions, each a story to tell.

Having left Gapuwiyak in 1975 Judy returned in the late 1990s. By then things were very different. Though they welcomed her with familial affection the people were largely unemployed and disaffected. The growing town had attracted new infrastructure but local people were never trained to sustain it. Changes to building regulations in the wake of Cyclone Tracey meant civil works were completed entirely by FIFO contractors. Only the General Store remained a source of stable employment. For others it was enough to collect 'sit down money' from Government leases. In Judy’s words, whereas before she was here to build a town and church, when she returned in the '90s her mission was of a different nature. This time she was a symbol of the past. Here “to rise up the old memories and spirits [and say] this is what your fathers were like, this is what your grandfathers… a reminder of what was done in the past. A reminder of where the community had come from. A reminder of what could be achieved.” 

Judy’s story is call to remember that what brought people together here was never easy access to food or state of the art facilities. It was never token pleasantries exchanged from behind thin veils of proclaimed respect. It was the shared responsibility of carrying out a shared vision. So what’s the vision now? The windscreen is foggy at best. But clues lie in the rear view mirror. In the stories that stretch from the present moment to the distant past, remote voices of grandmothers and grandfathers, their triumphs and mistakes, their hopes and dreams.

When the early missionaries arrived in Arnhem Land they carried a story. A story that remains deep in the fabric of our Judaeo-Christian culture to this day. The story goes that following the great flood the people of earth proceeded to build a city and tower that would reach to heaven. But their efforts were thwarted by God, who scattered them into nations with different languages, each unable to understand the others. The early missionaries interpreted the story to mean that no heavenly tower would ever be built until everyone was the same. Later missionaries like Judy began to see their tower for what it really was - a problem more complex than any one interpretation can resolve, a white horse. After all, from God’s perspective the story of Babel is a warning not to attempt the hubristic task of heavenly infrastructure.

In contrast there is one of the histories of Gapuwiyak as dreamed by the Yolngu. In that story two men were walking from Yirrkala when they saw a small pond with a little bit of water but not enough to drink. They walked to a nearby site of sacred men’s business and found a tree suitable for yidaki (didgeridoo). They chopped it down and painted it beautifully. Then the two men danced and one man was singing and one man was dancing. They sang about the Wurran bird. Then they saw the Wurran was flying to the small pond and was carrying a small fish but there was not enough water in the pond to put the fish in. So the fish started talking to the men and said “Can you get the yidaki and put it in the middle of the pond.” The two men slammed the yidaki down in the middle of the pond and gapu (water) began coming up through its middle. It kept coming until their was a huge lake of water. The men, the bird and the yidaki are still there today. From a version of the story published by Brendon Ganambarr

The two stories, together with that of Judy Davey, begin to paint a composite picture of Gapuwiyak. Its a complex history through which no simple story can chart a course. And yet, perhaps a simple story is the first step towards a shared vision. So I wrote one. And together with two Yolngu teachers, we translated it and told it to the kids at Gapuwiyak School. The story goes...

A long time ago
Near a big lake
There were some people,
Yolngu people
And Balanda people,
They needed to build a town.
The Balanda people were good at building
And the Yolngu people knew the history of the lake and how to find food,
So they decided to work together.
But there was a problem.
The Balanda people spoke English
And the Yolngu people spoke Yolngu Matha,
So even though they were standing together they couldn’t speak.
It was becoming dark so the people lit a fire. 
Suddenly a bird landed nearby.
It was a big black bird and it made a loud sound.
The Yolngu people saw the bird and called its name, “Wak!"
The Balanda people saw the bird too and called its name, “Crow!"
The people looked across and they understood -
To work together
They must first learn each other’s names.

With that I enlisted the help of a man called P--- to commence teaching me Yolngu Matha. I’ve no idea how far I’ll get. But as far as the question of how best to serve this community, it’s the way forward. And in the meantime I’ll continue to work diligently to provide the young people here with every opportunity to express themselves in the only universal language that no one understands. Art. 

And of course I’ll keep writing about it in English.

Subscribe

Background Reading

Davey, G & J (2014). 'A Brief History of Gapuwiyak 1969 - 1975' unpublished pdf, accessed from Gapuwiyak Art Centre Archive, July 2018.

Dewar, M. (1995). ‘The ‘Black War’ in Arnhem Land’, The Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, Canberra.

Kadiba, J. 1998. ‘The Methodist Mission and the emerging Aboriginal Church in Arnhem Land 1916 – 1977’, Thesis submitted for Doctor of Philosophy through the Faculty of Education, Northern Territory University.

Future Authoring

This is the five year plan I never wanted to write. It extends into the distance, so expectedly its clearest in the shortest term. It begins with the next 7 months, the most significant period of community service and professional development I’ve known to date. I’m here in Gapuwiyak, a remote Indigenous community in north east Arnhem Land, as a volunteer through Gapuwiyak School for the rest of the year. During that time I’ll run small to medium sized art projects with young people in the community. I’ll also complete the 75 hours of practicum placement I need to finish my Advanced Diploma in Art Therapy. In exchange, Gapuwiyak School is providing me with rent free accommodation and materials. I’m responsible for living and travel expenses. 

The projects I help develop and facilitate will centre around providing spaces and opportunities for kids to hang out and express themselves. I'll collaborate with other members of the community and organisations such as the Gapuwiyak Arts Centre. 

Personally I’m interested in ways that mapping processes can strengthen connections to place and nature. At the moment I’m recording found sounds at specific locations in given geographical areas, interpreting those sounds in a visual language, then arranging (mapping) the interpretations according to their relative geography. The process translates well into collective, project based iterations, that result in geographically accurate representations of subjective encounters with place. In February this year I successfully ran the first iteration in Sydney, with primary school students at Nicholson Street Public School, as part of a broader project to build an orchestra with all 175 students using recycled materials. I’ll run the second iteration with the kids at Gapuwiyak School. Then, having been selected to participate in the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency in Puebla, Mexico, I’ll run a third iteration of the idea in January 2019. Arquetopia is an internationally established, non-profit arts and cultural foundation with a social scope that emphasises critical thinking through artistic practices. Their academic international residency programs are the largest in Latin America, with an array of contents anchored in a solid structure of collaborations with prominent cultural institutions, renowned experts and notable artists. Participation in the residency program will ground my work in an institutional framework. I’ll meet three times per week with Arquetopia’s academic staff and the project participants will be students from the local University.

That's the plan until February 2019. Along the way I aim to produce written work and a podcast that appeals to an audience of people interested in the kinds of stories and insights that arise from my work. In that way I aim to sustain a unique and multifaceted career as a writer, with a special interest in education, nature connection, place, culture and community.

So, with the support of my loving family and friends I’ll suffer the burden of my dreaming, defeat the troublesome companions that are my weaknesses, rise to meet the best I’m capable of and share it all in words and pictures. If you’d like to read and see them, please subscribe to receive weekly letters and updates using the form in the sidebar (at the bottom of the page if you’re on mobile). 

Contact

Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.

Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.

Soft landings in Gapuwiyak

I arrived in Gapuwiyak on July 20, 2018. Its a town the size of postage stamp, 220km east of Nhulunbuy. At one end of the main road is the air strip. 700m away at the other end is the lake.

700m From the Airstrip to the Lake, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

700m From the Airstrip to the Lake, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

The are seven crossroads, the longest of which will take you 350m. There is a general store, post office, health clinic, rec centre, council chambers, arts centre and a school. The houses float on luxurious plots of land dotted with trees and shrubs, watched over by eagles, crows and brightly coloured bee eaters. The dusty roads are red, so are several of the houses. Others are green. Mine is yellow.

Yellow House on Gali Street, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT.

Yellow House on Gali Street, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT.

Gulun (Lake), Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

Gulun (Lake), Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

The Store, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

The Store, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT. July 2018

Sunset Corner, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT.

Sunset Corner, Gapuwiyak, Arnhem Land, NT.

Letters Home #2 "Soft Landings"

Notes
This is the second letter of its kind. You can read the first one here.
Also, thank you so much to everyone who sent replies of support and encouragement to my first letter. Your words were a balm on my heart and mind.

You can see photos relating to this letter here

Letter #2 "Soft Landings"

Let me just say that change out here is constant. But not time. Time bends and warps, and sometimes it stretches to eternity. Days begin instantly, they burst forth from sunrise like supernovae. Then they cruise at 34 degrees forever. Until sunset, when every colour from blazing red to the deepest violet spreads out in slow motion across an infinite horizon. Light speed sunrise and technicolour sunset, and eternity in between. 

Writing my last letter I felt as though I were sifting through shrapnel left here by the bomb blast of modern life. After sending it I wept. For the confusion and helplessness I was feeling. For the grief I could see in everyone’s eyes. I wept for the hungry and the sick and the lost and especially I wept for the displaced. For those of us, maybe all of us, who somewhere deep down feel as if we haven’t been home in generations. Then I picked myself up and went outside. There was a fire on the beach. A group of five people from the Czech Republic were visiting Djalu and they brought food to share. So we all sat together. Djalu, Dopiya, M--, T--, Vernon, a couple of kids and some unfamiliar faces. Dopiya said it was like old times. I thought to myself how odd, that a group of Czechs, some baked chicken, a teary eyed Jew and boiled potatoes on Thai-made blankets - how that could possibly bring back memories. But I too felt nostalgic. As if I were remembering something older than any of my actual memories. I looked around at the fire-lit faces and listened to the hum of crisscrossed conversations and I realised, we were all there for the same reason. To remember what we ever did with eternity before there wasn’t enough time in a day. And that night I slept like a baby.

The next day a group of young boys decided to show me a place 5km west of Wallaby Beach, where Crocodile Creek meets the sea. W-- (11), J-- (9), P-- (11), N-- (10), G-- (5) and me (28). Before setting off we gathered several of the straightest stems we could find and fashioned them into spears. I packed a knife, lighter and water bottle. J-- walked next to me, a little behind the others. Earlier that day we’d made a game of drawing a diagram of the body with Yolngu Matha labels. That’s the language group out here. J-- was still in language mode and patiently pointed out to me the different sights in his native tongue. Soon we came to a place he identified as the home of a big crocodile. G--'s brother was famously bitten by this one. So spears in hand we starred down the last known whereabouts of the great lizard. Like old times, they say. Turns out G--'s father died last year. It was a suicide. J-- said he was a good man. He also said his grandfather was killed by a bus because he was drunk and didn’t see it coming. J-- said when he grows up he’s not going to drink. He wants to play footy instead. I suggested he consider going to University. He agreed. By the time we reached the river mouth we hadn’t caught any fish. So instead the boys collected longbums (a crustacean with a 10cm triangular shell), lipids (river snails) and mud mussels. They gathered dry grasses and a few sticks and with my lighter made a small fire, into which they tossed our bounty. By the time the fire had burned down each of them had assembled in front of his folded legs an apparatus consisting of one flat rock for the bottom and one for the top - to crush and de-shell the various critters. A little lemon juice would have been to taste but on the whole everything was delicious.  

When we got back I felt as though I'd extended the patch of earth around me on which I knew my feet to have stepped, and I could breathe. I felt as though I’d slipped beneath the surface of this place and found there an innocent human experience of discovery and survival. I tried to stay in touch with these feelings during each of my remaining days at Wallaby Beach. And for the most part I managed. I finished my Yidaki (didgeridoo) and Dopiya painted it with a traditional cross-hatch pattern. I now carry it with me.

So it was that 10 days into a journey barely begun, I packed my suitcase full of questions and said goodbye to Birritjimi. My charter flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) was scheduled to leave early the following morning so I spent one night in town at a Motel. Djalu’s son, Vernon, planned to meet me there with a care package for his two kids. They live in Gapuwiyak with some family. Yolngu kinship, an elaborate constellation of lineage and location, is a thing to behold. Its common for kids here to call 4 or 5 different people mum and dad. Other aspects of Yolngu culture require life support from numerous intersectional community organisations working hard for continuity. Some organise traditional dances, ceremonies and tours for visiting Balanda. Others take a different approach, such as Yolngu Radio, a highly successful initiative to broadcast local music, news and ‘history’. That’s the English word Yolngu people use to refer to myths and stories. As if telling them is an act of remembrance. Its impossible to know the trajectory of the struggle for continuity out here, so close to town. Because on the one hand, watching mobs dance on the beach in front of groups of Balanda risks falling into the realm of token spectacle. But on the other hand, the owner of the Motel I stayed in, Travis (45), told me that the dancing and chanting he witnessed at a Welcome to Country in Yirrkala was so powerful he’d remember it for the rest of his life. My hope is that someday our children, or their children, will hear or watch or even sing along to any one of the thousands of ancient stories that criss-cross this country. And when they do, I hope it makes them feel at home.

Vernon never did meet me at the Motel. But I arrived in Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) on July 20, 2018. Its a village the size of postage stamp, 220km east of Nhulunbuy. At one end of the main road is the air strip. 700m away at the other end is the lake. The are seven crossroads, the longest of which will take you 350m. There is a general store, post office, health clinic, rec centre, council chambers, arts centre and a school. The houses float on luxurious plots of land dotted with trees and shrubs, watched over by eagles, crows and brightly colours bee eaters. The dusty roads are red, so are several of the houses. Others are green. Mine is yellow. Its a two bedder with a spacious kitchen and an open plan, south facing living space. Its walls are pale blue with powder blue window frames and skirting boards. The main bedroom looks over a sprawling rear garden with three large trees, a perennial, gum and possibly a Kimberly Rose. There's also a fire pit and a hills hoist. Around the side is a shed, car port and a storage container housing some spare furniture. Not that I need it, back inside there’s a large timber dining table, several bookcases, a plush satin sofa and two deeply set arm chairs. The washing machine can hold 8.5 kilos, only 2 more than the dryer. A selection of non-stick cookware and cutlery stay behind the white laminate kitchen cupboards. There’s also a blender, toaster, kettle and twelve-strong cupcake tin, which slides easily into the electric oven. The bathroom has a mirror and medicine cabinet, as well as a shower equal to the task of blasting the red dirt from beneath my finger nails. I’ve not yet met my western neighbour. But to the east lives O--. She runs a women’s group. There are problems here and O-- is frustrated by what she perceives to be an uphill struggle to guide the community towards something like the integration of Western values of education and self determination. Why? Its a question I’m carrying around. Maybe Yolngu culture could stand on its own here. The possibility seems less remote the more remote I go. At the same time, globalisation is here too. And its a flood. Even the strongest swimmer runs the risk of drowning in its hazardous waters of nihilistic overconsumption and pathological self obsession. Everyone needs some basic skills in navigation. So maybe that’s what we’re doing here. Myself, O-- and the 30 or so Balanda that work as teachers, medics, community developers, employment consultants and aid officers. Maybe we’re here to learn together just what kind of ship is going to keep us all dry.

School starts on Tuesday. I’ll run several art projects of varying scale as a volunteer this term. Some will centre around ideas I brought with me. Others will be in collaboration with various members of the community and calendar. People like Trevor, who runs the Art Centre. Every Saturday Trevor makes coffee for anyone wanting. Its a caffeine watering hole and today, alongside a band of enthusiastic folk, I had my fill. Among them was a woman named Judy Davey. In the 1960s Judy was one of a handful of Methodist missionaries who bushbashed their way to this place with enough gear to mill timber, and started this town. She’d not been back in over a decade. But low and behold she was here for a visit. So I asked her if she’d do a recorded interview with me. She agreed. Trevor suggested we do it in the Art Centre. So we did. But that’s a story I’ll save for another letter.

Postscripts 
You can subscribe to receive these letters by email using the form in the sidebar (at the bottom of the page if you're on mobile)

Photos and sounds from Birritjimi

These photos and recordings were taken over the past 10 days at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach) in Arnhem Land, NT, visiting Djalu Gurruwiwi and his family, learning about Yidaki (didgeridoo) and Yolngu culture.

Tomorrow I'm heading to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) where I'll be posted at the school as a volunteer, running some art projects with the kids, completing my placement for an Adv.Dip. in Art Therapy, writing, reading and researching mapping processes and connection to place. I'll also be developing a new project that focuses on nature connection in urban environments, which I'll run with 10 University students in Puebla, Mexico, as part of the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency program in January 2019.

If you'd like to receive my weekly letters please subscribe using the form in the sidebar! (Bottom of page if you’re on your phone)

My home for 10 days at Wallaby Beach, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. These houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. All in disrepair, they are nestled in paradise.

My home for 10 days at Wallaby Beach, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. These houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. All in disrepair, they are nestled in paradise.

Surrounding the houses on all sides is litter. Lots of it. Like pieces of shrapnel left here by the bomb blast of modern life. Why? Its a question I've been grappling with since I arrived. A question that I think holds a mirror to the shadows of our modern experiment and a window to the grief and sense of loss that pervades the complexity of this place. 

Paradise, an infinite dyad of beauty and ugliness, each made more so by the terrific magnitude of its other. The ocean here glows every shade of blue. It laps on white sand scattered with pieces of coral remains, lined by mango trees, coconut palms and casuarinas. There are hundreds of small birds, occasional osprey, dolphins and the odd saltwater crocodile.

Kids dancing before the sunset.

Kids dancing before the sunset.

Dopiya paints Yidaki in layer upon layer of simple movements over their surface. Like the stories that criss-cross this landscape, every stroke is a trodden path.

I'm currently reading Jeff Malpas' Place and Experience. Its a work of philosophy that speaks to the deepest aspects of our human experience of place. Reading the work I was struck by this passage, which I feel is a wonderful compliment to the images of Dopiya painting Yidaki.  

The complexity of place is mirrored in the complex process of triangulation and traverse by which the topographical surveyor builds up a map of the region being surveyed. No single sighting is sufficient to gain a view of the entire region, multiple sightings are required... The delineation of place can only be undertaken by a process that encompasses a variety of sightings from a number of conceptual ‘landmarks’ and that also undertakes a wide-ranging, criss-crossing set of journeys over the landscape at issue. It is only through such journeying, sighting, and re-sighting that place can be understood.
— Jeff Malpas, 2018, 'The Obscurity of Place' in Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography 2nd Edition, first published 1999, Routledge, London.
Together with two of the kids at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach).

Together with two of the kids at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach).

One night, one of the kids (11) took me down to the beach. He'd prepared a small fire and placed a rock for me to sit on. An overturned wheelbarrow acted as an amplifier for the Yidaki. For two hours he taught me some dances and songs. We played 'ceremony' in much the same way that city kids might play 'house'. One of the songs was called Gapu (water). In the dance, cupped hands are thrown over alternating shoulders, stepping in time with the pulse, washing the body with imaginary water. The next day when we were down at the beach having a swim, we sang the song and danced it in the shallows.

Originally I was going to take both of these Yidaki with me. The one on the right is painted with the Wititj (Python Snake), who according to history enters the Yidaki during the making process and ultimately controls its every sound. But from the moment I took possession of that Yidaki my body succumbed to a feeling of immense dread. That night I had a dream in which I was told to leave it behind, because it didn't belong to me. So I did.

Originally I was going to take both of these Yidaki with me. The one on the right is painted with the Wititj (Python Snake), who according to history enters the Yidaki during the making process and ultimately controls its every sound. But from the moment I took possession of that Yidaki my body succumbed to a feeling of immense dread. That night I had a dream in which I was told to leave it behind, because it didn't belong to me. So I did.

Next stop, Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella). If you'd like to receive my weekly letters and updates, please subscribe using the form in the sidebar! (Bottom of page if you’re on your phone)

MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

Letters Home #1 "Infinite Dyad"

Notes
In case you're not sure what I'm up to, I'm on an adventure beginning in Arnhem Land with a 10 day didgeridoo masterclass with Djalu Gurruwiwi in Wallaby Beach, then I'm heading to the remote community of Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) to volunteer in the school there, complete my Art Therapy placement and develop some ideas I have for an art education project that focuses on nature connection in urban environments - which I will pilot at the Arquetopia international art educators residency in Mexico in January.

For photos and sounds relating to this post go here.

Letter #1 "Infinite Dyad"

So far this trip has been an infinite dyad of beauty and ugliness, each made more so by the terrific magnitude of its other. I’m staying in Wallaby Beach, a settlement of twenty houses (shared between five or six large family groups) and a store, which sells soft drinks and chocolate, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. The houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. They are all in disrepair. Djalu Gurruwiwi, the man I came here to meet, lives in number 9. I am staying in number 5. T--, one of his daughters, lives between us in number 7. I share number 5 with two, sometimes three, twenty-something year old boys. There is no fridge, no working stove and the bathroom is several smells from clean. One night there was a dinner plate sized frog in the toilet. I’ve been into T--’s house, which is tidy, if not clean. She takes pride in it, though there isn’t anything she can do about the black mould that spills along the joins in the ceiling boards. And I’ve been into Djalu’s house, which is neither tidy nor clean. Surrounding all the houses on all sides is litter. Lots of it. Ten pieces to a square meter - mainly packaging for food and drink. You must understand, these houses are ugly and the people in them are as poor as their condition. And you must also understand that these houses are nestled in paradise. The ocean is a stone’s throw from the front door and glows every shade of blue. It laps on white sand scattered with pieces of coral remains, lined by mango trees, coconut palms and casuarinas. There are hundreds of small birds, occasional osprey, dolphins and the odd saltwater crocodile. The kids tell me a big one lives nearby, it was spotted walking the beach at 6am last Thursday. Whomever saw it would have witnessed a three metre lizard walking past an old bicycle lying half submerged in an iridescent ocean. Earlier this year Prince Charles flew to this place to meet Djalu Gurruwiwi and have him play Yidaki (didgeridoo) into his chest to help heal an ailment. When Djalu and others tell the story they are most impressed by the fact that Prince Charles was the only member of his party to take off his glove when shaking Djalu’s hand.

Everyone here consumes a lot of sugar and packaged foods. Some people drink two litres of soft drink every day. And the older people smoke a pack of cigarettes in the same time. It costs $30 for a taxi to the supermarket in town. Thats a $60 round trip for anyone without a car. At the moment that includes Djalu, his wife Dopiya and the six or seven people that live with them in number 5. Most days the kids go hunting for fish with spears fashioned from the stems of young trees. The old people don’t hunt. The people in the middle can hunt but their demographic seems the most troubled out here. They appear caught between worlds. A few work at the mine, some spend their days playing out American hip-hop stereotypes (to the dismay of the older women who protest against identifying with 'negro culture') while others wander aimlessly between the shop and their homes, drinking soft drink and waiting for footy training. I’m told that twenty years ago the people in the middle would light fires and cook food every night. The old people would come and sit and tell stories and the young people would dance. These nights loud electronic music blasts continuously from number 6 and the old people stay indoors. In the morning the young people tell me which of their older cousins was drinking. 

There are some exceptions to the disillusionment. Two of Djalu’s sons, Larry and Vernon, both intend to continue teaching history and playing Yidaki. They play in bands that tour the region, fusing traditional styles with reggae, afro-beat, hip-hop and rap. They plan to take on the task of welcoming balanda (white people) to Wallaby Beach after Djalu passes away.

And there’s the kids. Like everyone else, they know every song, rhythm and dance. One boy, W-- (11), took it upon himself to be my teacher. One night he came to get me from my room and led me to the beach. He had built a small fire and placed a rock next to it for me to sit on. Next to that was an overturned wheelbarrow that acted as an amplifier for the Yidaki. For two hours we played ‘bunngul’ (dance ceremony) - in much the same way that city kids might play ‘house'. He taught me the songs and dances and explained to me their meanings. At one point a Dolphin approached. W-- got to his feet and asked that I hold the end of the Yidaki towards it, then he played the traditional Dolphin song over and over. Afterwards he sat me down on the rock and played Yidaki into my chest. Then he shared a story with me, a dreaming, about Yidaki. It was the same story he had been told by Djalu. The next day W-- gave me a Yolngu name, Mutjatjal, which means rainbow python snake. It was all a game, like house. 

The kids here are tremendous athletes. They play throwing games a lot, pegging stones at birds, throwing spears, skipping rocks. They have amazing hand eye coordination and agility and they love sport. Especially Australian Rules Football. Everyone does. Its tribal. No other way to describe it. Game day is a celebration. Those who play for Baywarra (the local team) are revered and forgiven. One night I was talking with T-- (66). She was opening up to me about some of her hopes and dreams for the community, about the trials and tribulations of her life and faith. At one point she spoke of a dream she had a few nights previous. It was full of powerful symbols. She interpreted it as an omen that Baywarra would win the league this season. She hoped desperately that it would be so, as if her very future depended on it.

If this all seems a bit confused, trust me, I know - and remember that I have very naive eyes. One day we went out hunting for Yidaki. Djalu, Dopiya and their daughter, M--, together with a group of 6 balanda including R--, who comes up once a year from Victoria and has a Land Cruiser. We stopped at a stretch of bushland Dopiya seemed to know well, got out and began walking around, knocking on the young trees with the butt of an axe. When Djalu, Dopiya or M-- heard the right sound we’d chop down the hollow tree and cut it to length, then load the raw Yidaki logs onto the Land Cruiser. After a few hours of hard work we drove to a nearby stream and had a swim, lit a fire and cooked some meat that someone had brought. As we sat by the stream Dopiya munched the root of a plant she'd identified as edible from a distance of about 20m while tying together a bunch of leaves that she would later use for weaving and rummaging in her bag for another cigarette. Djalu nibbled on trail mix - the hardest food he can eat - and M-- spread jam and butter on slices of Helga’s. 

On a personal note, I’m doing okay. It hasn't been an easy adjustment. I’ve found it difficult, sad and painful. I’ve been awe struck and overwhelmed. Mostly overwhelmed. I’ve sought refuge in my books and research, taking recordings and illustrating sounds, reading philosophy and daydreaming about poetry. How alien those things seem out here, and yet, how familiar. I suppose I feel most of the time like an alien, with alien interests speaking an alien language, landed here by alien spaceship to do some alien research before returning to my alien planet and alien friends. Its lonely work. But on Thursday I’m heading to Gapuwiyak, to my school placement. I’m looking forward to having a stove and the familiar routines of a school week. I’m looking forward to working with the kids there, making some friends and further developing my ideas. In the meantime I’m going to finish making the Yidaki I started yesterday, hang out with the kids, light a fire at sunset, learn some more stories and take big sips of small joys.

I’ll write again when I’m in Gapuwiyak.

Last day at Bush School for a while...

Today was my last day at Bush School for 8 months. It feels strange to leave something I feel so connected to. At the same time it feels like leaving is part of my responsibility to the community and the work. Its time to make space for others and return with new things to contribute. I'm grateful to everyone for showering me with love and well wishes and for taking the time to reflect with me on the impact this experience is having on their lives. If you're one of those people and you're reading this I hope you will check in here from time to time. I'll post updates and discoveries, letters and essays. In the meantime, thank you. Through Bush School I've had the great fortune to nurture my own connection to nature, to practice what I preach, to listen to the birds and tell their stories. I've learned to be a guide, a friend, a colleague and a leader. I've shared many moments of wonder and deep connection - which I carry with me and which keep me warm. With love and gratitude, Ranger Dan.

Frame-06-07-2018-05-45-10.jpg

Sound Mapping

During the Trash Orchestra project I was thinking of ways to get students to perceive the world through their ears, to develop their capacity for listening, before they started making musical instruments. From my work in nature education I'd used mapping as a tool for connecting people to their environments, and from my contemporary musician friends I'd seen how graphic scores are used to communicate sound. That's how I got to sound mapping, which is not a new concept - but even old ideas can be found and picked up and looked at for the first time.

Ever since I've been thinking about how to refine the process and apply it in different contexts. Next week I'm heading to Arnhem Land for six months to do some projects with the kids at Gapuwiyak School. The first will be to create a collective sound map of the grounds. And in January I'll be facilitating a sound mapping project as part of the Arquetopia Art Educators Residency in Puebla, Mexico. In the meantime I plan to make a practice of sound mapping and to research related concepts.

So I got myself some recording equipment and I'll be collecting sounds, creating illustrated and poetic impressions of those sounds and collating them according to GPS location. I'll be posting my sound notes on a new blog Notes. Down the track I'd like to explore ways of creating maps with the data. 

IMG_5130.jpg

Trash Update

Earlier this year I completed a project called Trash Orchestra that involved 175 primary school students over six weeks. The kids constructed musical instruments from discarded materials and recorded an album of original music with Australian contemporary artist and vocalist Tina Stefanou and composer Joseph Franklin.

In a poetic twist following the completion of the project, the instruments themselves were then reused by Tina for an artwork entitled Can I Bare Children?. In Tina's words:

"Transported into the exhibition space these childhood relics act as questions marks - playing out narratives of consumption, objects and there relationships to each other, and the question of child rearing in a time of environmental and economic uncertainties. Can we re-design our cultural memory to meet new needs and new economies of being without baring [sic] weight on our shared lived ecology? The objects are not limited to themselves but to space and time. Once a sound is made it is never unmade - it ripples infinitely. Like the materials that form a bigger narrative, the components are orchestrated to decompose at different rates - the child, the rock, the cardboard, the wire - all move with us and beyond us in this living morphology of beingness. Not seeking to resolve or produce, Can I bare children? explores fluctuations and indeterminate factors of being in time as felt through the artist’s ageing female body."
(Stefanou, T (2018), 'Can I Bear Children?', Tina Stefanou, viewed 1 July 2018, http://www.tinastefanou.com/#/new-gallery-3/)

Here's a photo of the installation, which included a 14 minute loop of the original album.

Can I Bear Children?  2018, found objects, enamel, acrylic paint. various sizes, two channel audio

Can I Bear Children? 2018, found objects, enamel, acrylic paint. various sizes, two channel audio

Street Art Project

This is a summary of an arts project I completed this term (term 2, 2018) at Wenona School as part of Design School (co-curricular creative arts for junior school students).

The project involved two groups of 15 to 18 students over 9 weekly 2 hour workshops. The aim of the project was to explore the world of street art and for the students to express their ideas in tags, paste-ups and murals. It was a rich learning experience with a lot of development potential. In this post I follow a description of the project with some general comments and insights.

What happened...

To begin I showed the students some videos about street art, emphasising its relevance to freedom of expression, breaking out of the gallery and as a mouthpiece for young people. Then each student was given a 'wall', a piece of plywood 600x200 on which to experiment each week with different processes. The idea was that their designs would be layered on top of each other to reflect the way street art builds on itself (a concept called succession).

The processes I introduced included tagging (repeating an alias or phrase in a personal font and style), paste-up (creating works on paper and sticking them onto a wall) and mural (using spray or poster pens to create backgrounds and imagery).

I encouraged students to come up with original concepts that reflected their interests, ideas and messages for others. And along the way I introduced them to concepts such as succession, tag-up (only covering something with something better), scribble (the vandalism end of the street art spectrum) and cross pollination (collaborating or tagging with others).

After 8 weeks the completed walls were photographed and I rendered the images (with artistic direction from the students) onto found photos of actual walls in the world. Conceptually its street art in the digital world, treating found images of walls on the internet as the public spaces on which to make digital street art.

In an unexpected twist around week 6, some students noticed three cubby houses in an area of the school grounds called Woodstock covered with chalk scribble by students in K to 2. Their discovery presented an opportunity for a real world project based extension.

With my help the students measured up the cubbies and designed a series of murals. Then together we submitted a proposal to the school offering to install the murals as a way of addressing the scribble problem and demonstrating to the younger students that "street art isn't scribble and scribble isn't street art". The school approved the proposal and the murals were installed by the students in the final week of term.

All of the walls, photographs and a video presentation will be exhibited at a co-curricular creative arts showcase in term 3.

Some general comments and insights

Street art represents a way of communicating that comes naturally to these kids. Its all about memes, snippets of text and images that express something about themselves or send a message to others. From the idealism and depth of "Love is Who We Are" to the unapologetically insider "Yawn Now" and the popular swath of variations on "Unicorn". The students were able to create a map of their interests and self concepts. They were also able to locate themselves on the maps of their peers by creating transferrable tags or memes to share with others. By the end of the project several students had new nicknames and one had even devised a concept for her own brand of Lemonade, which she plans to give away for free at the exhibition next term (her tag was a Lemon). And the process of 'painting' the images on actual pictures of walls in the internet was a futuristic expression of the street art process that opens up new possibilities for how to inhabit and navigate digital spaces. The popularity of games like Minecraft show how these kids love to construct their worlds in the digital space and they are very good at it. Last year during the Architecture project one student designed her whole building in Minecraft. Suffice to say its difficult to know how to integrate tech into these spaces sometimes but this time at least it felt very natural. I hope to build on this project in the future by distilling what happened into a more streamlined process and use the new space to add elements such as the possibility to travel the digital world in search of walls, the social impact potential of the kids' memes and collaborations with photography for digital street art with older students. There are obvious links to my favourite subject - mapping - which which will no doubt be drawn out in future iterations.