Chatwin, Bruce: The Songlines (1987)

My first comment on this book sounds negative. Maybe I mean it that way. I haven’t made up my mind yet. Bruce Chatwin is another white dude in a long line of white people telling the story of the Aborigines of Australia. It isn’t Bruce’s fault that I bought The Songlines at the library. That is mine and I am glad that I did.

Here in Norway there aren’t many books by indigenous Australians that are sold. But what does the term aboriginal Australian mean. After all, there used to be at least 250 languages spoken among the people. Now, all but 20 are endangered. The Songlines represents one of these groups.

Chatwin grew up with a dream of Australia. As an adult he went there and got to know Arkady, a son of Russian and Ukranian immigrants to Australia. Arkady had fallen for the Aboriginal way of living and he had shown the Indigenous people that he was trustworthy and would respect their traditions. That is why they agreed to show him their Songlines or paths that intersected with the Dreamtime (holy places).

This is why Arkady was the perfect go-to person for Bruce. He had answers to the questions Chatwin wondered about and the means to introduce him to at least some of the decision making elders.

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 “defines ‘traditional landowners’ as a group of Aboriginals who have “primary spiritual responsibility” for sacred sites on a piece of land, and who are entitled by Aboriginal tradition to hunt and gather on that land. Traditional landowners are the key decision makers for their land, although Land Councils must also talk to affected communities.”

Arkady Volchok was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals. Part of his mapping was done as a surveyor for an engineer planning on starting the building of the Alice Springs/Darwin railline. But first the engineer had to make certain that the line did not cross the work of a Dreamtime hero.

The Dreamtime has partly to do with the creation of the world and totems. Somehow the world was sung into being from an idea, a singing that is still going on and that the Aboriginal sacred rites help support. Being able to stay off the songline had become important to the railway company – or at least its engineer.

To the Aboriginal people one could even say that all of Australia is a sacred site, one that is extremely important to disturb as little as possible.

I think I like this idea. It makes more sense that the European one and is certainly a whole lot more beautiful and carries a much greater degree of respect toward the preservation of the Earth. Where we Westerners are so caught up in greed and consumption, environmentalism seems to be the way of the Aboriginal people.

I admit it. I got caught up in Chatwin’s writing. I had to go online to research a bit more, trying to figure things out. Great trick that.

Chatwin’s goal with this book is to document the nomads of Australia. Nomad to Chatwin means a person who “moves from pasture to pasture”. He had previously gone into the desert of Sudan with Mahmoud, a nomad. Now he wanted to know what the Australian nomadic trails were like. What he discovers is an incredibly complex world including trade, marriage and survival strategies. I am not even going to try to explain any of this because I do not even begin to understand the songline, anymore than I understand what it means to be a man. Read the book.

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