Australia, Red Earth, 2011

I love Australia. Its hard to be precise in my description of why I am so enamored of this far away place; a specific example might illuminate.

When I landed in Melbourne after the l-o-n-g flight, I had to go through customs/quarantine because I had revealed I was carrying food (sports bars, for the outback). This was no big deal, and I have found its always best to claim these things because they are usually ok, and not claiming them can be expensive. As I put all my bags through the X-ray machine, I asked if I should remove my coat, to send through. The response “Heck, no mate–I haven’t known you long enough.” Cheeky humor is one of the reasons I love Australia (and, Australians).

I came to Australia to participate in ceremony with the women of the Pitjantjatjara group of Aborigines. As we are asked not to photograph, journal, or in any way, document and share what we witnessed, I won’t.

What I will do in this blog is share my impressions of being on the red earth of Australia for 5 days with these beautiful women.

The preparation for my time with them was chock full of surprises. The morning I was to be picked up for the journey into the red center, I took a few minutes to jump in the deliciously cold pool at the Outback Pioneer Lodge and Campground. As I was drying off poolside, I saw the chubbiest, fluffiest steely blue-gray chicken-like bird I have ever seen. I have no idea what kind of bird it was, and no-one I’ve described it too does, either.

As I watched the bird strut around a low to the ground sprinkler system that was misting the grass, I could have sworn the bird was checking myself and another woman sitting near me out. S/he kept looking around as if to make sure ‘the coast was clear.”

Then, the bird did the funniest thing I have ever seen a wild animal do. It strolled nonchalantly up to the sprinkler, and raised its right wing, as if to spritz its pits. Then it took a walk around, shimmied a little, and did the same on the left side.

The woman and I looked at each other at the same time. She said “Did you see that”? She was Australian and had no idea what kind of bird it was. A very clever one, I think (its very hot in the center).

As I was waiting to be picked up, I was staring into the parking lot for the lodge, and suddenly, out of the scanty bush, appeared two birds embroiled in a mating ritual. The male was dancing around the female with a wide display of glorious bold blue feather, spread like a majestic card deck. The woman kept him on his feet, hopping and strutting to initiate an even finer display. Pretty amazing stuff to see in a parking lot!

Then, the red earth. The Aborigines have for years honored and heard this earth; danced her with their feet and sung her with their voices.

40,000 or 10,000 or 5,000 years old—the tradition is not written and is meant to be remembered in our bones. My fear is that enough young people won’t show up to learn and know and preserve this ancient tradition. This is happening in many indigenous cultures. For this reason I will return again and again, to serve as witness.

The heat during the day and the cold at night were intense. My love of, fascination for, and fear of, Australia’s many lethally venomous snakes, was a challenge to “sit with” while standing, sitting, sleeping in the open, under the stars, on the land.

I was told they were not a concern—it was too cold for them to be out at night. And then, I was told it is not unknown that a snake will slither into a sleeping bag, tucked against a warm body, at night (or during the day). Instructions: If you are in your sleeping bag with a snake, don’t move. Wait, wait, and wait as long as it takes for it to leave on its own. Now that’s a practice.

There are more stars than sky. They are everywhere. A double thick blanket of light, especially the milky way, which I have hardly seen since I was a child. And I have never seen it this boldly expressed. Every other second, it seems, a shooting star –the remnant of something born millions of years ago, long gone, its light only now reaching the earth. The Aborigines know these stars intimately.

Voices. Wind. Snake trail in the red sand. How old is this earth?

Questions as I yield into her for 5 days:

Do we humans leave imprints? A brief flash-bulb memory, seen by a few sets of eyes, many many years later, like the stars?

Will the earth remember our footsteps?

Do bone and earth communicate; creating a dialogue that might become a permanent part of the history in the places we touch, lay on, walk on or squat on?

How do we become part of the earth’s story here? What holds the memory of us, individually and collectively?

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