#28 On Freedom

When I was younger I heard three stories, each in two parts. Perhaps you’ve heard them too. Its likely. Or at least versions of them in your own words. Perhaps you’ve heard about times before, when things were harmonious. About catastrophes that scarred everything and everyone. Perhaps in your midst there are witnesses to attest to the truth of these tales. Or others steadfastly committed to original words.

It was from the latter that I heard the first story. Set in a time before anyone whose ever lived can remember. About two ancestral beings who were naked and vulnerable but without knowing, so they weren't afraid. They lived in perfect harmony. And then something catastrophic happened. An evil entered and brought with it knowledge of a kind that tore everything apart. Even now upon those who’ve not forgotten what their ancestors came to know, scars remain.

The first part of the second story concerns a group. At one time slaves to a tyrannical ruler of an empire so vast as to make escape all but impossible. The lives of the slaves were difficult; yet they survived and multiplied. In their midst was a single determined voice with the power to set everyone free. Which it did.

The first part of the third story is more recent. Though fewer in number with each passing year, still among us are people who witnessed the events. Its also about a group, who for reasons unfathomable to naive conceptions of human nature, were systematically herded and exterminated by an evil that possessed an entire nation. 

As with the first two stories, the third is unforgettable. And many years later, in annual rituals of retelling, the descendants of those affected recall with bittersweet joy that their ancestors were set free by the power of belief in a transcendent voice, and the possibility of freedom. Each year they reaffirm their commitment to continued existence in spite of forces still intent on their enslavement. For all too aware are the not so naive that we remain capable of terrible cruelty; that without awareness we remain unafraid; and that without fear we remain deaf to the knocks of evil at our doors.

Maybe you’ve heard these stories. Or similar ones. About ruined childhoods, natural worlds destroyed by unnatural forces. Stories about you. Maybe you’ve seen first hand or met those who can attest. I once met a woman who inhaled longing, and when she exhaled decried the indelible marks left by her past between her ribs. I learned from her that memory is a complicated means of producing something other than facts. Stories mainly. At least in part. Often inter-generational.

These days we store the past at the tips of our fingers; we reminisce in high definition. But still, even as storage in the cloud replaces stories of before, we retain a lament for the catastrophe of prolonged exposure to the slings and arrows of time in the sun, or the moments that change everything forever. We continue to be reminded that no matter our admiration for advances in meteorology, the weather is unpredictable. And we resolve to relish moments and savour fleeting joys. We consider it wise to be grateful for what we have.

That’s as far as the first parts of stories can take us. Then come the second parts. And to be sure, without them, we would drown in unpredictable weather. The second parts are more terrifying than the first parts, more difficult too. And the reason for that is the second parts of our stories demand that we move on. That we shoulder the burden of past catastrophes as if they were matters of our individual responsibility. Perhaps more than any other, the reason the second parts are so terrifying, is that we write them ourselves.

When I was younger I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who expected me, having heard the stories of my ancestors, to write a good story of my own. The details were not important, but some general rules applied. My story should start small. And aim high. It should include others, but only with constructive intentions. At its core should be family, surrounded by community, supported by society to which is owed service, and from which nothing should be assumed given. All of the characters should strive to do good by one another, particularly in times of need. And as for my own character, he should lead the way; respect the past; be true to his word; aware of his capacity for error; guided by a transcendent voice; and sustained by unwavering belief in the possibility of his freedom.

Bicycle outside my shelter in the Desert (2019).

Bicycle outside my shelter in the Desert (2019).

Letters Home #17 Exegesis

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This week I started a new project, called Exegesis. Its inspired by everything I’ve been doing or trying to do. But before I get to that; a short story.

**

An old man shuffled with several heavy books down a quiet street. Two under his right arm, two under his left, one pinched in his right hand. He stopped briefly at a bench to ease and consider his burden, then continued on his way. As the old man struggled a young man watched, eventually he approached and offered to help. The old man was grateful and together they walked a few blocks to the old man’s apartment. Once inside the young man set the books on a side table and helped the old man into a chair. “I hope you don’t mind my asking a question,” the young man ventured, sensing himself in the presence of wisdom.
“Not at all,” replied the old man, still catching his breath.
All of a sudden the young man was self-conscious. It seemed absurd to lay at the feet of a man he’d never met a question he’d always wanted to ask.
“So,” said the old man, noticing the young man’s hesitation, “What is it you’d like to know?”

Unbeknownst to the young man, in a time gone by the old man was called an exegete and a homilist. He’d expounded, proclaimed and edified. Teased, pruned and tamed the verses of ancient stories whose lines frequently overgrew the sweet nectar between them. All so that others might more easily wander the garden of their genius.
But the ancient stories were predicated on the notion of Truth. And time, in its propensity to select and reject from the catalogues of ideas throughout human history, rejected Truth. Its reasons were clear. Nothing, it said, could occur contrary to the laws of nature. And besides, that there were a multitude of denominations laying claim to Truth was unequivocal evidence that whatever it was in their stories that sustained them, it had little to do with objective reality.
So the old man had been stripped of his reverie. However, unlike some of his colleagues he made no appeal to a higher court. Nor did he dispense with his verses. Instead he gave one final address to his congregation.
“My friends,” he said, “There is no greater sacrifice than a sacrifice for Truth. This we learn from Abraham, who for Truth was willing to bind his only son Isaac to the alter. So terrifying was his faith, the sages tell us, that the angels in heaven cried and their tears fell into Isaac’s eyes. Years later, as an old man, Isaac was blind and vulnerable thus to deceit. Permit me to offer an equally terrifying interpretation of this story. For the sacrifice a man makes for Truth is to denigrate all ideas but his own. To the vast majority of humankind he says, ‘I have sacrificed your ideas for Truth.’ Therefore he cannot even consider them. He is forever prejudiced. And like one who stares openly at the sun he will stare so hard at Truth that when he looks away he will be unable to see beyond its imprint. Such a man is blind. And his children will be blind as well.”
Muffled voices rippled through the congregation and threatened to boil over.
“My friends! Please, let me finish!” The old man struggled to quiet the room, it was quickly filling with unbridled emotion and unfortunately his final words were lost on many. “Let us not hold so tightly to our verses that we prevent even the tiniest drop of nectar from reaching our tongues. For it is the nectar that sustains us, and we should continue to know its taste. The same stuff flows in other stories, but not in all of them. So I implore you to look upon your work as I look now upon my own, knowing that it has barely begun.”
With that the old man left his post. In the proceeding years he set about studying the collected literary effort of humankind. What he learned frequently changed his mind. 

The young man looked in the old man’s eyes, a pair of alpine lakes crowded by fleshy peaks and valleys. 
“I’d like to know what makes a good story,” he said.
Genuinely interested, the old man replied, “What do you mean by good?”
The young man thought for a moment.
“I suppose I mean true,” he said, "But not the kind of truth arrived at by reason. Nor the kind of truth with a capital T. I mean the kind of truth contained in stories. The kind of truth arrived at by exegesis.”
“And what makes you think the truth of a story can’t be validated by reason?” the old man prodded.
“Because stories have an internal logic. They can make sense without being reasonable.”
“Then perhaps, young man, your question is about the difference between sense and reason.”
Again the young man took a moment to think. He hadn’t framed his question in that way before. Now it seemed too fundamental to pursue. He was lost for words.
“Perhaps,” the old man said quizzically, “It will help you to know this story. Its about a wayfarer, who visited a city rumoured to house an enchanted well. When he arrived in the city the wayfarer enquired at an inn and in exchange for two pints he was given a map. But after following the map for an hour he concluded it was erroneous. What did he expect from an innkeeper? the wayfarer thought. So he visited a fancy hotel, where, in exchange for a room he was given a second map. After another hour he concluded that the second map was a fraud. What did he expect from a hotelier? he thought. Then the wayfarer happened upon a street urchin, who told him in no uncertain terms that such a well did not exist. But what did he expect from an urchin? 
The wayfarer decided to visit the library, where he made copies of every map he could find and spent several days following them all to no avail. Eventually, exhausted, he determined to enlist the help of others. So he stood outside the fancy hotel and sold his maps for a dollar apiece, to cover expenses. Later that day a couple to whom he had sold a map walked by and he overheard the husband say, ‘That map was hogwash!’ to which his wife replied, ‘What did you expect from a peddler?”
The young man was wrapt with the fable but appeared confused. “I’m not sure that answers my question.” he said.
“Well,” came the reply, “What did you expect from a story?”

**

So, back to the project. Simply put its a series of group sessions focused on the exegesis of canonical stories in popular Western culture. Beginning with The Lion King. During the sessions I play twenty to thirty minutes of the film at a time then facilitate a discussion about its underlying significance, which I make poignant by using language from the kids’ vernacular.

For example, here is a snippet of truth contained in The Lion King:

To be a good king (adult) involves a lot more than simply getting one’s way all the time. A good king keeps the circle of life in balance and maintains a peaceful home. A good king is brave, but that doesn’t mean he goes looking for trouble. Being brave means overcoming shame. In that effort it helps to be light hearted, let things go and remember that all the great kings of the past are on your side. 

A king who wants nothing but to get his own way is like Scar, who acts out of jealousy and hatred. He relies on three hyenas who spend all of their time teasing, lying and playing the fool to do his bidding. Their loyalty is based solely on the fact of their being fed.

To be king is the right thing to want, what’s important is how one gets there.

How one gets there.

How one gets there.

Letters Home #16 'Bedtime Stories'

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Waiting for a billy to boil.

Waiting for a billy to boil.

Half of the brain is dedicated to vision, which means the best time to tell stories is bedtime, when there’s more room to process information beyond what’s apparent. Which might also explain why people faced with complex problems tend to think for a few seconds with their eyes closed. Whatever the case, bedtime is a good time to imagine. So this week we took seven kids to Yalakun for an overnight camp.

Yalakun is a beachside outstation, two hours by four-wheel-drive on sandy, unsealed roads. Its home to a solitary Ranger and knowledge holder whom everyone calls 'the old man'. There’s an old schoolhouse - no longer in use - two bungalows, a simple shade shelter and four outhouses. In the centre of it all is a big white cross. Its a hundred meters from the cross to the beach, where we sat under the setting sun, with bellies full of kangaroo tail and damper, listening to the old man. He spoke of the land and surrounding clan groups, of the crocodiles and their habits, of the best times to fish and of the sandflies that come out when the wind dies down. 

When he retired the rest of us stayed by the fire with a billy and the rising moon. From what I could tell the chatter was light hearted, though of course I couldn’t understand. One by one the kids went to bed until there were only two. Then the conversation took a more serious turn. R— was talking. She was telling a story, that much I knew. I lay on my back and relaxed into the rhythm and cadence of her words. Occasionally a brief debate would ensue, but for the most part she talked and everyone listened.

I imagined she was telling a sacred story. Tracing the features of the land in the movements of ancestral beings, casting the silhouettes of animals into the stars and teaching how to navigate by their eternal presence. I couldn’t know, but I felt deeply the company of ancient knowledge and the comfort of family. 

When the billy hissed I made to stand up but R— put a hand on my knee. “Waku,” she said, “Will you read this aloud?” In her other hand she held a mobile phone, its light reflecting the undersides of her features, the tops of which were lit by the moon.
“Sure,” I said, sitting up and taking the phone. I straightened my back and cleared my throat, then I looked at the screen. At the top of the page was the heading, Book of Revelation, Chapter 7.
To be honest, I wasn’t completely surprised.

In Gapuwiyak one of the more unexpected, though not uncommon sounds is amplified Christian rock music. It blasts every weekend from huge speakers outside some of the houses. This week it started at seven o'clock in the morning on three consecutive days from a house at the end of my street. On the fourth day I learned that an old woman who lived in the house had passed away. The music was part of her palliative care. After she passed the roads were closed for the hearing ceremony, the first opportunity for the family to grieve. All of the women sat in the yard of her house while the men, their foreheads smeared with white paint, gathered nearby. They walked towards the women in a tight group, singing and playing clapsticks. When their song was finished the women started wailing and throwing themselves repeatedly to floor. They hit themselves with rocks and sticks in places on their bodies corresponding with their particular kin relationships to the deceased. When I asked why they hit themselves I was told that it helps to stop thinking and start crying. After the ceremony everyone sat together, listening to Christian rock. A huge white cross leaned on the wall of the house. 

Most of the adults here went to Sunday School as children. The devout sit every night in fellowship circles, praying and reading scripture, while others partake in the regular vices. There’s no longer any formal religious education so kids learn mainly at bedtime. They fall asleep to stories about God. Which all goes to say, I wasn’t surprised to be holding that phone. I read chapter seven aloud. Its part of a highly symbolic, apocalyptic story, written by someone called John at a time when Christians were under increasing pressure to worship their Roman emperor instead of their God. This is what it says.

“I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea, 'Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.' Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from the tribes of Israel… After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!’ Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes - who are they, and where did they come from?’ I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

“Amen!” 
I handed the phone back to R— then stood up and fetched the billy. 
“Gnama,” I said softly while pouring the tea, “What does that mean to you?”

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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 #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.

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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.

Turtle

This past week I've been telling a story about turtles. Its inspired by a Native American motif I came across that relates the pieces of the turtle's shell to the twenty eight days of the month and explains their occurrence by a fall from grace. I wove in some seasonal themes and the concept of hibernation. At bush school we usually follow this story with some clay and invite the kids to make little turtles. They can draw shell designs in the clay with sticks and then make hibernariums for their turtles to rest in. We also play predator/prey type games in which the kids have to embody turtles looking for food, when the hungry eagle swoops in the kids have to curl up into their shells or else get eaten by the predator.

Turtle, 2018, ink on paper, 20cm x 15cm

Turtle, 2018, ink on paper, 20cm x 15cm

Long ago turtle's shell was smooth as stone. Like today he lived in small ponds and swam around in search of food. It was summer and there was plenty to eat. Turtle would swim around looking for insects and crustaceans. Occasionally he would poke his long neck out of the water and take a look around. On one such occasion turtle noticed that some of the trees were losing their leaves, it was windy and the air was growing cold. There were less insects and crustaceans about. Winter was coming and soon there would be no food to eat. In the distance Turtle saw Heron, a large bird with long legs, preparing to fly north with the sun. Turtle approached Heron and asked if he could accompany her on her journey. But how would she carry him? She asked. Turtle had an idea. He fetched a stick and asked Heron to hold it between her feet. Turtle gripped the stick with his front claws and held on tight. Okay, he said, I'm ready. So Heron flapped her wings and took off into the air. Higher and higher she went, all the while Turtle held tight to the stick. When they were quite high Turtle looked down. He'd never been so high up before and was shocked by the bird's eye view! So shocked in fact that in his surprise he let go of the stick and began falling to the ground. His heavy shell hit the ground with a loud crack, splitting into many pieces. Heron flew down after him. When she landed she found Turtle in a great deal of pain. He was too injured to fly and would have to remain in the pond while his shell healed. So Heron helped Turtle find a safe place in the pond to rest. She soothed him until he fell into a deep sleep. Turtle slept so long that when finally he woke the sun had returned and it was spring. Turtle's shell had completely healed. Every crack was now a scar. Together they made a beautiful pattern.

So it is that every winter Turtle recalls his misadventure and chooses to rest cosily in his shell, recover his energy and emerge just in time for spring.

A Story about Resilience

This story was inspired by two encounters. The first was with a comment by Dr Jordan Peterson, he said during one of his lectures, "You are the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers going back three and a half billion years." Those words struck me to my core. The second was an encounter with the parent of a child who was suffering from attacks of anxiety. I see this a lot and I suffer from anxiety myself from time to time. Its really hard. There are lots of people out there developing tools to help. Some of them might even work. But at the same time, like all technology, tools come and go, not everyone can access the same ones and its important not to mistake the tools for the solutions. I think the actual solution has more to do with accessing the quality of human beings that for thousands of years has given rise to tools. We are resourceful and resilient by nature. We have to be. But we forget. And it helps to be reminded. And the best way to be reminded is for someone or something to hold a mirror to that part of ourselves which is the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers going back three and half billion years.

So, with that in mind I wrote this story...

Once the sun and the earth made a seed. The rain watered the seed and it sprouted two leaves, then a stem and then two branches. The sun and earth watched the seed become a little plant. One day the plant woke up. It looked down and got such a fright! Oh no it thought, I am so far from the ground, what if I were to fall? The plant was very worried. So worried that it stopped growing altogether. The sun and the earth were worried too, for they watched the plant refuse to grow. So they sent the wind to help the plant. The wind listened to the plants worries and suggested that perhaps the plant would be better off as a bird, for birds can fly and so there would be no chance of falling over. The plant agreed and so the wind transformed it into a bird. The bird flew a great distance until it came to a large forest. The forest was full of enormous trees. The bird was amazed by the trees. It landed on a branch high in the canopy. Oh dear said the bird aloud to the tree, you must be terrified! The tree responded to the bird in a low and gentle voice. Dear bird, it said, how old do you think I am? Maybe three? Said the bird. And how old do you think trees are? The bird was confused, what do you mean? Well, said the tree, I may be three but I am a tree and trees are 300 million years old. And for all that time we’ve been learning to stand without falling, and all that we’ve learned is inside every one of us. So you see dear bird, it is my nature to remain standing. The bird was amazed. It thanked the tree and flew back to its home. When it arrived the wind was waiting. It asked the bird how things were going now that it could fly. The bird replied that things were great but would the wind please transform it into a tree? They’ve been learning to stand for 300 million years!

Resilience, 2018, ink on paper, 18cm x 14cm

Resilience, 2018, ink on paper, 18cm x 14cm