Letters Home #11 "Shame"

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

In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

On the day of my first hunt I loaded into the back of a tall and boxy work horse called a troopie. Almost always white, troopies have two and a half seats in the front and a pair of bench seats in the back. The bench seats run down the sides of the cab, so for passengers in the back of a troopie the natural place to look is not the road ahead but the person across the way.

Across from me sat four men I’d never met, shoulder to shoulder, their eyes scanning. Their bodies rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road. Our eyes would meet and we'd smile and after a few such instances the man across from me spoke three words into the silent cab and everyone turned. “Where you from?” he asked.

It was an obvious question. But I hesitated long enough to notice the wind brush the hairs on the back of my neck. I reached my hand to touch them and felt shame for not knowing what to say. I smiled apologetically - I needed more time.

Suddenly the troopie braked hard and the bodies inside lurched sideways. Someone called out, “Witi!”. We turned and saw a large wallaby hop across the road behind us. In a flash one man handed another the rifle and he got out and took a few quiet steps to a nearby tree. By then the wallaby was forty metres away. The gun fired, louder than I expected, the wallaby jumped and a red mist stood where it had been. I raced towards the body with another man. When we got there he made sure it was dead and looked for his knife. I had one in my pocket so I handed it to him and he slit the animal’s throat and told me to hold it up and let the blood. I gripped its tail, warm and muscular. I pulled back its head and the last of its life spilled on the floor. Then I laid it down and the man removed its stomach and intestines and handed me back my knife. We were thrilled.

At a river we rested and washed the blood from our bodies. The wallaby was hung and butchered, each man was given his portion and more to take home. We cooked on an open fire and ate in two small circles, carving the meat on flat stones and dabbing it in salt. As it was my first hunt I was offered pieces of kidney and sections of bone containing sweet marrow. Also the end of the tail. 

“Where you from?” someone asked. I wanted to say that I’m not from anywhere. But I didn’t. We finished eating and washed again then said words of thanks to the land. We needed to find another animal to feed the families waiting at home. So we set off for a place known to buffalo, one of which can feed five families for a week.

The buffalo was pale grey with hints of blue and pink. Its horns grew straight out of its head, turning at their ends towards the sky. It took four bullets to bring it down. We approached the body with sharp knives and an axe and surrounded it like lions. We took turns and worked quickly to skin the hide. I used my hands to separate the muscles and make cuts along the seams of its rear leg. Beads of my sweat dripped into the flesh and mixed with warm dark blood from a severed artery. At one point I looked to the animal’s head. I wanted to see its eyes. But they were glazed and lifeless, indistinguishable from flesh. Eventually I managed to free the limb and hoisted it between my shoulder blades and carried it to the troopie.

When the work was done we sat in the cab, silent with exhaustion. The dusk light was golden and it lighted the four bodies across from me. I could see their bones and muscles. I could feel the warmth of their blood beneath my skin. I lowered my eyes to my legs then lifted my head and looked in the eyes of the man opposite. “Where you from?” I asked his eyes.
“Me?” they blinked.
“Yes.”
He hesitated. The light was fading now and his body was a shadow but his eyes were bright and some of that light seemed to come from inside. I spoke again, this time with my eyes, “Did you travel a long way?”
He didn’t answer. I fell silent and flexed my hands, they were coated in dry blood. I squeezed my tired thighs. “I was born in South Africa,” I said. “Though I grew up in Perth and more recently I lived in Sydney.”
His eyes listened. His body rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road.
“Truth is I don’t feel as though I’m from any of the places I’ve been,” I continued. “My great grandparents left Eastern Europe early in the twentieth century. I'm part of a language group called the Hebrews, destined forever to dwell in the lands of others.”
“Soon we’re going to stop and pray,” he said, this time with his mouth.
“Okay,” I said. But I needed more time. My eyes widened and moistened. My chest rose and tightened at the back of my throat. Through baited breath I said, “I know my ancestral stories and dreams. I read them and try to understand what they mean.”
His eyes were bright and some of that light was from the moon. When we got out to pray, I prayed for forgiveness.

With love,
Daniel

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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.

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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.

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Letters Home #4 "Interrelated"

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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."

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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.

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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.

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 
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