Saturday 19 October 2013

An Australian Story - Only The Land Knows

4000 years Before the Present

The sun was not yet high enough to burn off the grey mist hanging low over the outgoing water. The lowering tide slurped back and forth along the full length of the white pristine beach. The tug of war between land and sea was gradually being won by the receding water. The salty cool air clung to the low lying limestone cliffs, breathing life into the lungs of the new morning. Winter and the cold south easterly winds would soon arrive bringing with it the rains to quench the thirst of this dry sparsely vegetated  landscape.

Ponde who was on top of a limestone outcrop, crouched down low on his haunches, feet spread wide apart, balanced perfectly, relaxing while he looked seaward. Through the salt spray he saw the women swiveling their bony feet into the soft tidal sand, trying to feel for the prized cockle.  Ever so often their toes would come across the hard smooth shells. When this happened they would quickly bend down to scoop the cockles up into their long thin outstretched fingers, then with care, transfer their find into the net bags they carried over their shoulders. This occurred many times during the course of the morning. He watched on, feeling increasingly hungry.

Ponde was in his twelfth year, the year of becoming a man. He looked forward to the ceremony to make him so.  He could then hunt the agile majestic red kangaroo and the abundant small grey wallabies with the other men, when the tribe moved to their winter camping grounds . This would happen soon, as the days were growing shorter and the cold made it difficult for the tribe to survive near the sea.

By mid morning the net bags were overflowing with the cockle, so the women left the sticky wet sand and proceeded to slowly walk over the first line of sand hills. Ponde watched on, thinking about how lucky he was to be part of all this and as they approached the summer camp, he too wandered back .

His job was to prepare the cockles, placing them into equal heaps on the flat sandstones residing within the cooking pits and covering each with small branches, leaves and dry grass. When all was ready Ponde used a fire stick to ignite the make shift bush oven. The dry fuel exploded into a dancing yellow flame around the mounds of cockle; black smoke and the pungent odor of dry grass, burning shell and green leaves announced to the others  a meal of succulent seafood was on the way.  Members of the tribe gathered around the mounds of cockles as they opened up under the heat of the fire to reveal their sweet soft cooked meat. The feast began.

The camp site had been used long before living memory. Discarded shells of the cockle littered the ground for many hundreds of metres, so it was impossible to walk anywhere without hearing the crunching sound of shells breaking underfoot. The sea of old cockle shell glittered in the rising sun, seemingly telling their story of periods of plenty, when the members of the ancient tribes sat together around the camp fires with full stomachs, reliving the memories of the Dreamtime.

Ponde’s belly was now full. Soon he would be a man and have the secret knowledge of the dreamtime and the responsibility that went with it to pass down to the next generation. His life was one with the land, his existence dependent upon it. The initiation ceremony would bring him face to face with the stories of the dreamtime; vivid tales describing the forces that shaped life as he knew it.

For months he had lay awake at night thinking about this moment.  He felt so proud to be part of the tribe, he being an extension of the dreamtime. The land, the sea, the rivers, the mountains, the sky, the trees, the animals, and of course the people; everything was, is and always will be intrinsically connected, nothing was in isolation. 

Later that afternoon a number of the tribe appeared on the crest of an adjacent sandhill; one of them Cobar, a tall powerful man of about 40 years of age, wind-swept hair in disarray and a long black knotted beard, carried a small  dead wallaby on his shoulders.   The scars from a long ago ceremony were etched out across his chest in horizontal lines, ridges like coastal sand dunes, but these did not drift with the wind, a permanent reminder of his position in the tribe. Behind the large intensely piercing  eyes was a proud intelligent warrior, a man of authority, who showed in his deeply farrowed face a person completely self-assured and at ease with his surroundings. His eyes scanned the camp for Ponde. 

Soon Cobar came up to Ponde dragging the dead animal behind him and pronounced, “Here is a cutting stone to remove the skin of the wallaby. Do you remember how I showed you.”  

“Yes, Cobar. I remember, I promise to do a good job,” responded Ponde with confidence. Cobar nodded, turned and walked slowly away toward the rest of the men. 

Ponde knew this was a man’s job, so felt proud to be asked to do such an important chore before the initiation rites.  He grasped the round flat object tightly into his right hand and using the jagged edge he cut deeply into the fur, working it carefully as to not damage the hide too much. The cutter was made of flint and was very precious. It had been traded from another group of aboriginals that lived a great distance from this place and a number skins of kangaroo were needed to acquire such a valuable tool for the tribe.   

He closed his eyes and thought about the upcoming ceremony. Though excited, some apprehension lingered in his mind.  He had witnessed the beginning of many rites of passage since he was a small boy.  In his head he could hear the wailing of the women as they danced around the camp fire, for they were losing their sons to manhood forever and would miss them dearly. He watched as the boys were covered in red oche and a band of human hair strands was tied around their waists. He was also there when the men led the boys off into the wilderness on walkabout, to be told the sacred stories of creation and to return days later as men leaving their childhood forever in the past. Life marches on relentlessly with no desire to linger too long at any one moment in time. 

Ponde reflected on this as he finished skinning the wallaby. All he had to do now was wash the hide in the nearby creek. It would make a wonderful warm shawl for someone, maybe a final gift to his mother before she lost him.

Many things now cluttered Ponde’s mind and maybe it was this that made him forget to bring back the cutter. It laid in the sand next to the creek...
Canunda National Park, South Australia

The Present

The sun was not just yet high enough to burn off the grey mist hanging low over the outgoing water. It was cool and winter would soon arrive. Peter and Janet had been looking forward to this holiday for such a long time. Both were professionals. Peter, a smart looking lawyer and Janet, an eloquent  interior decorator led very busy lives. 

The pressure of work had been getting to them, so they had decided to take a break away from the hustle and bustle of the city they loved.  These two were not country people by nature and preferred the home comforts and facilities only a large city could bring. Janet was not sure about going to the country, being a flashy dresser that felt comfortable in high heels and designer clothing, not a jeans-and-t-shirt girl.  Her idea of letting go was a holiday in a resort, camped  next to a swimming pool with a drink in hand. Peter on the other hand, though just as much a flashy dresser, fancied a driving holiday in the country where he could get away from people and do some walking. After much discussion, Peter got his way so they hopped into their expensive foreign sports car and drove away along a straight barren highway that soon took them to the peace and tranquility of the country side. 

After a few days, the feeling of serenity started to permeate their souls. “Life in the city never quite felt like this,” thought Peter. He could see the stress lines on Janet’s face fade as the days went by.

Day Four saw them walking along the coastal dunes in a well-known national park by name, that was seldom visited due to its isolated location. The track had led them to some spectacular coastal scenery; they were enjoying the experience walking hand in hand even though the weather was bleak. Peter was surveying the landscape when he noticed cockle shells on the sand, spread out over a very large area between two sand hills. 

“That’s interesting,” he proclaimed loudly, “How did they get here?” 
“Maybe the wind blew them here or the sea had encroached into this area at one stage,” commented Janet. 
“Humm not to sure about that,” Peter mumbled back.

He started to walk towards them when a round unusual shaped rock caught his eye. He bent down and picked it up and studied it closely for a few seconds before saying, “ Look here, Janet.  This stone has a very sharp edge to it. It looks to me to be man made.” 
Janet leaned over his shoulder and examined it herself. “ Ohhh  looks like a lot of the rocks around here, besides why would it be here in the middle of nowhere.” 
Peter  thought some more then nodded, “ I suppose you’re right, wishful thinking on my part.” 
“Yes,” Janet giggled,” You’re such a romantic. Too cold and barren for anyone to be living here.” 
Both of them had a good laugh as Peter tossed Ponde’s cutter on to the sand.

As the couple walked away, the wind let out its own shriek of laughter. Peter suddenly felt quite strange. He closed his eyes. Inside his head someone whispered, "Only the land knows, only the land knows..."

Oyster Catcher looking for the same food as the Aboriginal women

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