Friday, January 25, 2013

Footprints and songlines

'I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song; and that these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First Man shouted the opening stanza to the World Song, "I am!"'  - Bruce Chatwin

The songlines, as Bruce Chatwin describes them in his book, are the pathways trodden by the ancestors in ancient Australia. They represent the perimeters of land navigated by different tribes as well as being a means of passing dreamtime stories to the younger generations to explain the existence of certain mountains and rivers and to give colour to the history of those lands and journeys. It is possible to recognise exactly where a person is from in Australia by the song they sing. Inflections within the song represent mountains or rivers.

Bruce Chatwin is an English man who travels through the Australian outback seeing connections between Aboriginal dreamtime songs and stories and his own thesis about song as the origin of language. He explores the paths trodden by humanity's ancestors as they migrated from south eastern Africa to Australia. He intersperses anecdotes from his encounters with memorable outback characters with quotes from his hundreds of notebooks on related topics including enjoyment of walking, nomadic travel, the origin of our species, and human migratory practices and songs.

I've been thinking about the songlines of my own ancestors. My family are newcomers to Australia. Four generations ago we began treading on this land. Before that our footprints mark pathways in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Our songs and stories are of challenging journeys by boat, establishing themselves in a new land, and time spent in country Australia as farmers or church ministers. My grandfather used to tell of getting up at dawn to milk cows, and walking barefoot to school, insisting the journey was uphill both ways. Dad has tales of spiders in the outdoor dunny, playing tricks on teachers, and other Tom Sawyer-like adventures in country New South Wales. He  remembers the Aboriginal People living in settlements outside of town in the 1950's, pushed out from what was once their place. It is a reminder that we are literally and metaphorically treading all over other people's songlines.

As I walk the streets of Newtown, my current home, there are more family footprints that were trodden before. My parents owned a house in the next street, and it seemed like we visited almost every  second weekend to do repairs when I was a kid. And my older cousin Ben lived in Newtown up until his death in 2000. While I was too young at the time to understand his illness or have a meaningful relationship with him, I feel strangely connected to him now. I picture him walking the same pathways, perhaps sipping coffee in some of my favourite cafes, and finding inspiration for his art in the interesting characters and colours of the neighbourhood. It's comforting to think that wherever I might go, other people have trodden before, and now it's time for me to mark out my own path, treading lightly so as not to trample upon the ancient songlines, and probably singing my own verses about walking, nomadic travel and migratory practices, as well as continuing the chorus of "I am".

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