Australian outback, red dirt

Going native in Australia

In Insight and Experience by LivingNowLeave a Comment

Towards the healing place

In the 1960s, we moved from Melbourne to Alice Springs for health reasons. Asthma was in the family, and my sister was unable to breathe the humid, moist air of coastal Australia. By the time she was 16 the asthma was so bad and she was so debilitated that medical opinion warned she had only a few months to live. My parents asked the surgeons at St Vincent’s Hospital what could be done to help her. One suggestion, which they admitted was a long shot, and partly based on hearsay rather than scientific evidence, was to take her to a drier climate, in the hope that this would heal the disorder, or at least extend her life-span beyond the projected few months. Mildura in north-western Victoria was the first place mentioned; then, as her condition worsened, they seemed to agree that Alice Springs was the place to go. Within a few weeks preparations were underway, and my mother and sister were to fly on a TAA 727 Whispering T-Jet to central Australia. For a couple of months, my father, my other sister and I remained in Melbourne and we drove up later.

When we pulled out of our suburban East Preston driveway on a chilly morning in September, I had no idea that I would never return to that house, my school or friends. I had told my class at the East Preston Technical College that I was making a short visit to central Australia, and the English teacher asked me to keep a travel diary and to report on the trip to the class upon my return. I cannot have been very bright in those days, as I literally thought I was going for a brief holiday. Perhaps my parents told me we were moving to the Centre permanently, but it was not something I could conceptualise and so I decided not to retain or process the thought.

I kept a flock of pigeons in a loft in the backyard of the house, and I had asked a friend to feed my birds while I was away. Thus it was with a certain amount of distress that I learnt I would never see my birds again. They were homing pigeons, and I had trained them over several years to fly home to their loft after taking them for short trips in the car. They were put in a cage and I would explain to them that they were to circle in the sky upon being released and find their way home. But now I was the one going home, although this was only made clear in hindsight. Luckily, I was able to convince my friend to adopt my birds into his flock. I missed them terribly in Alice Springs, although the wings of my spirit were about to find a different kind of expression.

Miraculously, my sister was healed of her condition within a couple of months of breathing the dry desert air. My parents rejoiced at this blessing, even though they mourned the social displacement and permanent disruption to family life. At the same time, I began to be healed of a condition I did not even know I had: isolation in and confinement to the human ego. I had thought this was the normal state of being, and the only time I felt the wings of my spirit was when I let my pigeons loose and watched them circle above me in the sky. I had never anticipated finding a different state of consciousness from the one I habitually knew. But two things worked on my soul to release me from the egoic condition: the spirit of the land, and the spirit of the Aboriginal people.

This was quite subtle at first, and I had not even realised that I was partly ‘going native’ or ‘going black’, terms that were often used in a derogatory sense. Mostly going native referred to drunks in the park or derelicts who could not hold down a job. Rarely was it seen in the positive sense of seeing the world as native people see it. But the landscape seemed to work on me, drawing me out of the shrunken ego and into a mystical participation with land, earth and sky. The Aboriginal people of the town were the first ones to notice this change in my nature. Several told me that they had noticed I had an ‘Aboriginal soul’ and that I had ‘begun to think like a blackfella’.

Walking through the soul of the world

To think like a blackfella meant to think in vast terms, across aeons of time and space. It meant being able to experience the land as alive, as a living subject, instead of the typical ‘European’ habit of perceiving the land as a dead object. It was to experience the soul as vast and wide, and not to see the soul merely as a pea-sized organ in the brain. It was odd for me to notice that people such as myself were referred to as ‘Europeans’ by the indigenous people. I had seen myself as ‘Australian’ before my move to Alice Springs, but now I was not so sure. The indigenous people saw themselves as ‘Aboriginals’ and white people were ‘Europeans’. In that part of the world, no-one was classified as ‘Australian’; it seemed like an identity that had still not come into being. Perhaps the idea of ‘Australian’ was an empty signifier that had yet to be filled with meaning, but those white people who call themselves Australians probably have no idea what the term means, and no-one can be an Australian before they have come to terms with the indigenous spirit of this place. For the time being, ‘Europeans’ is probably the best term, and a subtle ploy on the part of Aboriginal people, a way of keeping white people in their place.

Europeans live on the land and see nature as a backdrop to human affairs. Europeans take nature for granted and do not ask nature what it wants, or what it hopes to achieve. Europeans are egocentric and have probably been that way for hundreds of years. They see themselves as the crowning glory of creation, and yet they, we, are ignorant with regard to the nature of reality. They regard Aboriginal people as ‘primitive’ because they are not full of the demonic energy of progress and development. Aboriginal people seek to relate to the unseen spirits of the land. They spend an enormous amount of their time in states of attunement and receptivity. They realise that the greater part of reality is invisible, and that our lives are best spent trying to adjust to the invisible forces. Aboriginal culture is based on wisdom, whereas European culture is based on knowledge and information. Wisdom seeks to attune itself to spiritual forces, and knowledge seeks to gain mastery and control over the physical world. I must have had some ‘Aboriginal’ element in myself, because as soon as I came into contact with this culture, it made enormous sense to me.

Perhaps this resonance came from my Celtic background, because, not too long ago, my Celtic ancestors experienced a similar rapport with the environment to that experienced by Aboriginal people. They too felt the invisible forces, recognised the spirits of the land, and adjusted their lives accordingly. They too walked not only through the world, but through the soul of the world. I am never sure why we lost this cosmic vision, because without it we inhabit a spiritual wasteland and feel ourselves to be empty and lost. Whenever I visit the west of Ireland today, the land where my grandfather came from, I can feel a regard for the invisible forces in nature and human nature that is not dissimilar from that which is found in Aboriginal cultures. We all had this spiritual sense once, and I was determined to recover it for my own life.

I did not want to live in the European reality which saw nature as dead and inanimate, but I did not, and could not, take on the Aboriginal cosmology as my own. I was always interested in learning about the sacred Dreamings of Aboriginal people, but I recognised that I could not take them into myself. This would be to steal intellectual property that did not belong to me. It would be theft of an unforgivable sort, the theft of the spirit. After my culture had stolen their land, and dislocated their culture and religion, I had no desire to add insult to injury by asking for their Dreaming as well.

The mystical body of the earth mother

But it was the Aboriginal Dreaming that inspired me to find some answering image within myself. I found out much about Aboriginal cosmology from a local white woman who seemed intensely alive and interesting to me, but who had been deemed ‘eccentric’ by the town. She managed a sculpture-farm just south of Alice Springs, which featured the works of the sculptor of Aboriginal forms and figures, William Ricketts. Ricketts had told me, at his Melbourne ‘Lyre-Bird Sanctuary’ (in the Dandenongs), that he was ‘Aboriginal inside’; he said he had a white-man’s body and an Aboriginal soul. I could not decide if he was inspired or mad, and I never settled the case. But I recognised immediately what he was saying, as I felt something similar within myself. Elsa Corbett lived alone on Pitchi Richi, a 30-acre property teeming with Aboriginal faces made by Ricketts, and she taught me a great deal about Aboriginal myth, legend and tribal custom. After my being fired from my job as trainee accountant at the Alice Springs abattoirs she employed me, along with two Aboriginal men, to help maintain the extensive orange orchard. She took me around the MacDonnell Ranges and Mt Gillen district in a collapsing, near-derelict four-wheel drive, stopping to point out the significant geological features and telling me the Aboriginal stories which surrounded them.

Elsa helped me explore what she called the rocky body of the Aranda earth mother. She would indicate to which Dreaming, lizard, caterpillar, wild dog, euro, a certain pile of stones, waterless creek, or rocky ridge belonged. The whole of the earth, she said, told stories about the wanderings of the earth mother and her animals and children. And who was I to question her authority? Some of it may have been invented on the spot, although she claimed to have been informed by traditional sources, but I suppose what mattered to me was that I was being exposed to a completely different mode of perception. The world was not just a static world of rocks, sticks, and earth, but a fluid world of imagination, capable of assuming a variety of shapes and many meanings. This budding mysticism, pantheism, or desert-romanticism deeply moved me, and had a lasting impact. It may not have been the anthropologically precise Dreaming to which Elsa Corbett exposed me, but it was, at least, the psychologically satisfying white man’s dreaming, and landscape was never the same for me again.

My experience in Alice Springs taught me to love and respect the earth mother in ways that I could not have achieved while living in Melbourne. In all Aboriginal mythologies, the earth is experienced as a feminine power, and that made great sense to me. It was the earth mother and her stony landscape which broke the encasement of my rational ego and which drew me into a larger sense of identity, which opened up a dialogue between myself and the archetypal other. Naturally the vast expanses and the sheer weight of all this rock terrified me at times, and one can easily feel crushed by it, but Australian landscape is like the soul itself: if you respect it and realise the ego can never assimilate, conquer, or transform it, you are allowed to survive. More than survive, one might even thrive, and be healed of the Western condition of spiritual alienation.

Dr David Tacey is Reader in Literature and Psychoanalytic Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He is the author of eight books, including ‘The Spirituality Revolution’ and ‘How to Read Jung’.

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