Cosmos~flower 2 – moving beyond ‘wild’ flowers

Part Two – Moving beyond ‘Wild’ flowers.

(This is draft material which i prepared before setting out on the present (May 2017) road trip to Central Australia. Thought it might be of interest to others – and thanks to  Port Augusta Public Library for the wifi.

We visited the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden while in Port Augusta to see their comprehensive collection of Eremopholia. It was pleasing to see that they include some indigenous names on the signs for some of the Eremophila on display. Will upload some pics later as i just exceeded my daily quota.)

For me the profound poetry of this country – life’s true poetry – is to be found in First Peoples Dreaming stories.

Keeping in mind my central problem raised in Part One  – what is the next step – I was surprised to find myself on an imaginary trip to Central Australia (now a real trip!)

When I got home from my walk in the Royal National Park I was looking for a book about local Koori stories and flowers when I came across a heavy duty anthropological book I have had for a long time and not read. I thought it was about time I justified to myself buying it and opened it to have a read.

“The Native Tribes of Central Australia” by Spencer and Gillen opened at a page which referred to a red flowering plant from Central Australia and its significance to Arrernte people. And away we go …

In their account of an important Arrernte (Aranda) initiation ceremony, Spencer and Gillen noted the words of an important fire song “Atnylinga etunja illa althara wuntama”  which is repeated “… over and over again.” (S&G 1899 – 1969:238).

Spencer and Gillen mention “Atnylinga is the red flower of a species of Eremophila, which, in the Alcheringa, was made red with much burning.” (Spencer and Gillen 1899 1969:238). This plant plays an important part in the initiation ceremonies which mark passage into male adulthood.

Spencer and Gillen do not, as far as I can see, a record the particular species of Eremophila.

“Eremophila” is (obviously) a non-Arrernte label for a large group of plants which means ‘desert loving’. In true Lévi-Straussian pensée sauvage fashion it has social parallels as well which I do not explore here – except to note that amongst desert loving First Peoples daily life requires the emphasis has to be on the need for collective enterprise rather than individual escape.

Spencer’s earlier involvement in the 1894 Horn expedition to Central Australia – he edited the 4 volumes of the reports, one of which was devoted to plants – would make him well placed to identify Eremophila, even if he does not specify which one of the 180 or so species (Jessop 1981:339)

G.S. Richmond has written a review (1993) of the uses of Eremophila (Myoporaceae) by this country’s First Peoples.  Along with many other uses, Richmond notes:

Eremophila species have played a role in the ceremonial life of Aboriginal people … Of all the species utilized, E. longifolia appears to be of special important for Central Australian Aborigines, and is considered to be the most sacred and mystical of all Central Australian plants (Latz 1982) …”

Richmond mentions, in this E. longifolia context, initiation ceremonies witnessed by Spencer and Gillen.

“The leaves and branches were used in elaborate circumcision rites where small sprigs were placed in headbands and armbands of the novices. Dances were performed … This event was followed by singing for several hours and then the young men allotted for initiation were decorated with twigs and leaves which were placed in their headbands. This material was known as wetta, and would be worn until the end of the ceremony…” (Richmond 1993:104)

Pastor Carl Strehlow, working with Western Arrarnta people at Ntaria – Hermannsburg mission –  at the turn of the previous century also recorded a Dreaming narrative which mentions a Dreaming precedent along these lines. ‘47.  Die tnurungata [Larven]-Manner’ (1907:216-218).

In that story, the full details of which may be restricted to initiated men, we learn that these Dreaming ancestors placed tnurunga-Zwieige (twigs?) in their Gurtel (waistbelts) Armbander (armbands) and Haar (hair) before they transformed into sacred objects at Emily Gap (Anthwerrke) just outside of the present town of Alice Springs – Mparntwe.

Carl Strehlow footnotes (5) that ‘tnurungatja, eine gross, gelbe Larvenart, die sich an tnurunga-Buschen findet’.

‘tnurungatja is a large species of larvae found on tnurunga bushes’ (Google Translate)

Chewings, who made an English translation which was never published, translates ‘Larven’ as ‘grub’ but I feel this does not do just to the original, especially as we explore both the amazing transformational characteristics of larvae and their significance in First Peoples lives. (What term did Spencer and Gillen use?) More on this soon.

We learn, from the Introductory Dictionary of Western Arrernte (Gavin Breen and E Rubuntja, G Armstrong 2000:56 IAD Press):

(copy missing?)

Carl Strehlow’s ‘tnurungatja’ is clearly ‘tnwerrenge’ and ‘tnurungatja’ is clearly ‘tnwerrengatye’ in this more recent orthography.

Carl Strehlow mentions they came from Ulaterka – (He gives Ula = forehead and terka = green = green forehead) which lies westerly from Mount Sonder (Mt Ziel in one account). Urlatherrke.

The Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary (Henderson and Dodson 1994 IAD Press) says,

  1. under ‘forehead’ ‘urle’ and note “’Traditionally, it can be offensive to men for a woman to talk directly about a man’s forehead.” (page 596)
  2. and, to account for the difference between yellow and green caterpillars,  under ‘green’: “a colour that includes green and some shades of yellow and blue …. Atherrke ‘ (page 686 – main entry p 302). It also refers to grass, and, as merne atherrke (b) ‘edible leaf parts of plants; leaf vegetables such as spinach and lettuce.’.

Caterpillars are great examples of creatures which, firstly, devote one stage of their life to this activity – leaf eaters par excellence with great appetites – and, secondly, undergo a remarkable transformation in which their first larval body is converted to nutrients for a second set of genes – and flight!

Working with ‘concrete logic’ (a la Levi-Strauss) they are not only ripe for eating but also ripe for thinking. First Peoples make great use of empirical qualities to represent abstract concepts.

These ‘grubs’ and caterpillars play a highly significant role in the Dreaming dimensions of landscape and in the social and ceremonial life of Arrernte people in the Alice Springs- Mparntwe area. It will be good to draw this out a bit later – maybe when we are Mparntwe.

In Aranda Traditions (1947, reprint 1968) TGH Strehlow provides:

“tnuruŋa (Eremophila species, a shrub or tree whose leaves and branches find extensive ceremonial use. … Small twigs are stuck under the headbands and armbands of novices …”

Meggitt recorded how, during a Warlpiri initiation ceremony:

“During the singing, the guardian (his brother-in-law) frequently brushes the boy’s head with the leaves of Eremophila longifolia, the badge of the novice among the Warlpiri. This action closes the lad’s mind to everything but the songs, the “strength” (but not the meaning) of which he now absorbs.” (Meggitt 1962 reprint 1984  287)

And here we run into something of a full stop since the songs which the young man will learn contain some of the metaphors which are required for connecting Being to Cosmos.

We ourselves are not involved in this initiation process, and lack both the language, culture and knowledge of country which are presumed by the initiation practices.

 But more important than a limitation on our knowing is the realization that, for that young man (and all like him), these matters inform the core of his Being. He is born into a cosmos where he is a living reincarnation of these Dreaming forebears – and this a part of a much larger configuration of similarly signified Beings.

Core identity – Being is signified by the same process in which country is signified – share a common fate.

These Dreaming dimensions of life are denied by modern cultural notions of ‘reality’.

Can the naming conventions of modern botany ever assist us to connect to our surroundings in such a high transcendental way? We may need poets as well, Professor.

In contrast to the very high significance placed upon it by First Peoples, it is curious that, in reading European accounts of the flora of Central Australia, Eremophila longifolia does not rate much of a mention. Emu Bush and Poverty Bush is sometimes mentioned, with those terms seemingly used in a generic sense as well.

An overview of historical process by which the flora of Central Australia was documented by botanists and explorers etc is covered by J H Willis in Jessop (editor-in-chief).

The focus on what is ‘new to science’ slowly gave way to looking at other aspects of plants, such as their relations to their habitats and, in some cases, their uses by First Peoples. (Willis, in Jessop xvii).

Even the contemporary account “Vegetation of Central Australia” by J S Beard in Jessop concludes with discussion of the effects of soils as viewed from a chemical perspective to account for two major differences to be found in the Australian desert flora.

While this is as it should be, no doubt, the point I am trying to work towards is that there is no real space, in the Western conceptual apparatus at work in the field of botany, for consideration of indigenous ‘metaphysical’ systems of signification of these ‘same’ plants.

Despite the fact that the scientific familiarity with the flora of Central Australia may span, say, over 150 years or so, it is carried out within a narrow range of expert opinions of what is to count as being worthy of investigation and what is to be deemed significant within that ‘enclosed’ community of interest.

The fact that First Peoples in these areas had, at least, thousands of years of intimate contact and a profound knowledge of these ‘same’ plants was not a key feature of the process of scientific documentation.

The possibility that some plants might be ‘sacred’ and ‘mystical’ (to use that form of words) had no room in modern scientific enquiry.

To make it socially in the academic world where such botanical matters were of keen interest you had to look to ‘nature’ as defined by Western master narratives.

Clearly, from First Peoples perspectives, ‘nature’ was a lesser means of interpreting experience in contrast to the high culture concerns of life within a cosmic context.

We are dealing with cosmos, not Western notions of ‘nature’. There are no ‘wild’ plants in a fully cultured cosmos. We need a new terminology. This is a cultural challenge for interested conceptual craftworkers. A whole lot more work-play is required, especially in a spirit of cultural partnership with First Peoples.

The ‘red burning’ mentioned in the Arrernte song is, in all probability, connected with events in the ‘Alcheringa’ such comparable to the Warumungu great conflagration Bush-fire which transformed life in the Beginning. [Warumungu Arapunji and Aranda Urapantji are connected].

If this is correct in the Arrernta case, Atnylinga – as opposed to ‘raw’ nature –  is well and truly ‘cooked’.

By an unexpected path, to do with otherwise insignificant plants known as Emu Bush, and Poverty Bush, to the core of a sacred process.

The fact that we have been lead to Arrernte ceremonies is striking to me since, in my view, the practices found in the hard desert country of the Centre have always struck me as those which adopt a sort of spiritual high-ground in contrast to easier ways of life found on the coast. It is as though, living in a harsh environment, people in the Centre specialised in metaphysical practices, the high-quality products of which are exchanged as life-messages with other peoples.

Certainly when you are alive to these matters, Being in the Centre has a transcendental humm and buzz to it. Lacking the appropriate cultural metaphors, we can yearn to connect – but are unable to take the next step.

D.H. Lawrence, who stayed briefly in Thirroul, wrote about this in another context – describing us as being akin to spiritual amputees. I like to think we are more like lizards – who can regrow a shed tail – or like snakes – who can shed their old constricting skin and emerge with vivid new skin fresh to the world again.


Trial trip to Central Australia – June 2017. Ozstudies Pop-Up ed

I am taking some mature-age friends like me on a two-week trial Ozstudies trip into Arrernte country (Central Australia) in June. One friend is an artist and another has an interest in plants. This itinerary is for information only.

If there is enough interest from others (Central Australia is not cheap to visit) we may pop-up again!

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn


Itinerary Central Australia  trip June 2017

 We can only do so much in a short visit of 15 nights as there is so much to learn about and experience. This trip serves as an introduction – to provide some first-hand experience and begin to see country from bi-cultural perspective –  indigenous as well as from the more familiar non-indigenous.

I have aimed for a mix of town and country experiences, with ample time at Uluru and Arrarnta country to simply be there. Rather than a long reading list, we flow with the go. You cannot help but feel the full-on forces of creation in this part of the world.


Mparntwe/Alice Springs is in Arrernte country. The earlier spelling was ‘Aranda’ or ‘Arunta’. Further west (Western Arrernte people) the preferred spelling is ‘Arrarnta’. This country is rich in Dreaming tracks, sites and stories.

The best people to learn from about these matters are Arrernte/Arrarnta people themselves. This is easier to say than to do, but we will keep our eyes open for mentors. Their time is valuable. 


First stage: Saturday – ARRIVE IN MPARNTWE/ALICE SPRINGS (3 nights)

Pick up Alice Springs airport.

The aims here is to rest and recover from traveling internationally; to start to gain the feel of Central Australia; and to learn a little of the indigenous and non-indigenous culture and history of the town.

We can learn a lot about desert loving plants – Eremophila – and others (e.g. Hakea) in a short time at the Olive Pink Botanic Reserve (very good lunch cafe) and the Desert Park. These all have Dreaming aspects and we need to start learning to see the landscape as signified by Arrernte peoples.

What is happening in the local life and the art scene (indigenous and non-indigenous)?

Visit to Red Kangaroo Bookshop and art galleries (e.g. Araluen)

Second stage: Tuesday – TRIP TO ULURU (3 nights)

This trip gives some idea of the extent of country in Central Australia. It is almost 500km and takes 5 to 6 hours depending on stops. The days are short and we don’t want to be driving west into the setting sun if we can avoid it.

Uluru is increasingly regarded as a kind of spiritual centre in Australia (but there are sacred sites everywhere!) I thought we should do this part of trip first since most people want to see “the Rock”. I have planned for three nights there. One whole day to just be at Uluru and a second day to visit the nearby Kata Tjukas.

The Pitjantjatjara – Yankunytjatjara country may access our dreams while we sleep?

Third stage: Friday – RETURN TO MPARNTWE/ALICE SPRINGS (4 nights)

When we return to Mparntwe/Alice Springs it will already be more familiar from our first stay. While there are lots of activities, it would be good to leave this time open so we can check out anything which comes our way once we are there.

Could hire some bikes for a day trip around town or in the nearby part of the West MacDonnells on the Larapinta Trail?


We don’t have to travel so far for the trip into Larapinta country – an hour or so along the Larapinta Drive to the first stop. Larapinta is the Arrarnta name for the Finke River – a very old river, with some surprising links to the night sky in Arrarnta Dreaming stories. I have written about this cosmology. More anon.

We will visit the former Lutheran Mission at Ntaria – Hermannsburg. Lot to be said about this area – later. Albert Namatjira country; Sterhlow Father and Son, and now Arrarnta women potters (and choir).

We can camp and/or book cabin at Wallace Rockhole – Aboriginal run venture – and to do their short intro dot painting course.

If our AWD is ok for the rough sandy track along the river gorge, we plan to visit Palm Valley. Ancient Palms connected by Fire Dreaming.

Then to travel round to Tnorala – Gosse Bluff (very large impact crater and Dreaming story) to camp etc at Yapalpe -Glen Helen – great place in its own right and, fingers crossed, still serving wonderful meals in its cafe. Motel accommodation is greatly overpriced for what you get so backpacker and/or camping.

On the way back to town along the Namarjira Drive we can explore some of the Gaps in the Toritja -MacDonnell Ranges – narrow ravines, towering cliffs, waterholes – and also visit the ochre pits.

Fifth stage: Friday – RETURN TO MPARNTWE/ALICE SPRINGS (2 nights)

Follow up any leads from earlier time in town. Any local artists or other interests?

If we haven’t already seen the stars in the dark sky (the moon is against us in the early part of the trip) this will be a last chance to get out of town and see the night sky in all its glorious expanse in the desert air.

Good chance to  visit Anthwerrke – Emily Gap rich with Yeperenye – Caterpillar Dreamings as documented in Wenten Rubuntja’s life story “The Town grew up dancing.” (No photos of rock art) and for a final billy and cooking on a fire at the nearby Tyethe – Jessie Gap.

Finally. Sunday – Alice Springs airport. Depart for other destinations.