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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Photos and sounds from Birritjimi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kids dancing before the sunset.

Kids dancing before the sunset.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

Letters Home #1 "Infinite Dyad"

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

For photos and sounds relating to this post go here.

Letter #1 "Infinite Dyad"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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