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):
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,
- 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)
- 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.