The subject is stark – brutalised humanity in the plight of Syrian refugees living in appalling conditions. What stands out is the humanity.
I am reminded of the poetry of Wilfred Owen – exquisite poems from the horrors of the trenches in WW1. He too stressed the humanity of his subjects despite their shocking situation.
It takes a special writer to achieve this.
Flanagan offers, in this short essay, a masterclass in human portraiture.
No wonder this book was shortlisted for two Premiers’ Literary Awards in 2014 and won two in 2016. Dark Emu caused a slip in my consciousness. It is a pivotal work.
The book turns our Australian ‘history’ on its head. I grew up believing that the Aboriginal way of life was pretty fragile, apt to be shattered by the next drought or flood or outbreak of disease. As ‘hunter-gatherers’ they basically moved from one kangaroo to another. Admittedly, they were pretty clever, I later learned, in their use of fire to manage the wildlife – they had to have something going for them to have lasted this long – but basically they were opportunists, lacking the technology to create or store food reserves. And this left them at the mercy of the vagaries of the elements and meant they were inferior to us white folks.
This view of Aboriginal life fitted with the prevailing Darwinian perception that change is good because only through change can advancement occur. Looking back through the development of the human species with this conditioning, it is obvious that we are the pinnacle, culturally, physically, technologically, etc etc. We got to where we are by settling down. The sedentary lifestyle facilitated the further development of agriculture and fostered pursuits such as mathematics, metal work and pottery. It allowed us to ‘develop’. Civilisations that do not exhibit the markers of this Western view of progress are considered inferior.
Pascoe challenges this dynamic. He points it out in plain and simple terms having taken most of the book to show what was really going on in the human civilisation at the time of European conquest. And how does he do this? By going back through the written records of the first settlers and the explorers. In the introduction, he writes that as a consequence of his research for his previous book, Convincing Ground, he was sent material from the families of original European pioneers from a number of districts in Australia. It connected with other material he kept turning up, and so Dark Emu was written.
I did know that my school education was fundamentally lacking in regard to Aboriginal history, but I thought that was mainly to do with the covering up of the violence and ruthlessness of dispossession, massacres especially. Pascoe has provided us with an understanding of what was disturbed, destroyed, obliterated. Not just people but a way of organising life so that the well being of future generations was at the forefront of the society’s consciousness. There was a continental political system that, while it in no way precluded violence between nations, did maintain boundaries between peoples. There was a sophisticated culture, agriculture al and irrigation systems, sensitive practices in the management of food and other resources, established trading routes, systems of cooperation between nations, clans and individuals across past, present and future.
To take but one example from the book, the descriptions of permanent housing intrigued me. Hunter-gatherers don’t go in for houses much as a rule, but villages were described and sketched right across the continent by explorers and white pioneers. Further, I shared some of Sturt’s surprise when, staggering through what is now called Sturt’s Stony Desert, famished and heat-struck, he stumbled upon a village of 300 – 400 people! As much as their presence in this ‘inhospitable’ landscape, the courage and hospitality of these people amazed him. (pp74-75)
So extensive were the challenges in Dark Emu that I found Mitchell’s journals online and read them. Pascoe does not exaggerate. What he says is there, is there. With Dark Emu now a part of my learning though, I can also see how European is Mitchell’s view and how coloured are his interpretations. But the raw images of what he came across are really there. I now look forward to reading more – Sturt and Eyre for starters.
So much of our history was wiped from our national consciousness that our perspectives now are fatally warped. Pascoe posits that one of the main reasons for this amnesiac recasting of history was to legitimise theft on a grand scale: British colonisation of Terra Australia. It is a pattern not peculiar to the Brits or to Australia. This one is ours to confront, however, and it is one that is continuing to be played out. To resolve issues from the past, the reality of the history needs to be acknowledged and the distortions clarified.
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett (2013)
Not as gripping as The Truth (the birth of news-papers) or The Colour of Magic (the birth of Film) and perhaps it is a fact that I have read an inordinate number of Discworld novels. HOWEVER, Pratchett is clever. His toying with words and their meanings delights me. For instance, it took me some time to realise that the ‘loggysticks’ that the engineer was going to depend on to finish building a bridge in time were actually … (cue drumroll) … ‘logistics.’
I checked the publication date for this novel because it, very early on, appeared obviously satiric. 2013 – the global troubles had been bubbling away for some time. In Raising Steam Rhys, the Low King of the dwarfs, faces a rebellion from those who reject peace their fellow creatures – humans, trolls, goblins – in favour of preserving their ancient Ways and Identity. Their garb derived from the dangerous task of releasing pent-up fire in the mines (I think) but they have made of it a uniform:
It was the deep-down grags that gave him nightmares because, well, there was something offensive about those thick leather clothes and conical hats. After all, he thought, we’re all dwarves together, are we not? Tak [dwarfs’ God] never mentioned that dwarfs should cover their faces in the society of their friends. It struck Rhys that this practice was deliberately provocative and, of course, disdainful.
Throughout, the novel prods and teases and pats human experiences – of Learning, Change and the Fear of It, Tradition, Modernity, Curiosity and Mastery, Prejudice – into a shape resembling Our Present Times, and All Times for that matter, I suspect. There is a final shout out to the biases of our Western Societies, and others, in the final pages, but it would be spoiling things to say.
My fear of heights has vanished. When I was very young, I had no such fear. I was not too reckless – I only recall falling from one tree – and enjoyed the challenge and the different view. My aunt Alicia had to bring my younger brothers and I down from the platform of a tank set high above the orchard – two storeys at least. (‘You were a bastard of a child’ she said to me lovingly and grinning at a recent family gathering.) In my teens I climbed onto roofs without a thought. Sometime, somehow, I developed a feeling of dread about being up high – in a bell-tower, or near a window in a skyscraper. Edges next to falls became terror-filled. Or I did. A vivid memory of the intensity of the fear was a walk my girlfriend (now my wife) took me on in the Blue Mountains: the Undercliff Walk. I felt uncomfortable many times, but was terrified I was going to fall into the valley on one particular stretch. Some force was pulling at me, trying to suck me off the narrow, unfenced walkway and into the abyss beside me.
Not long after my first day of 7Second, we were back at the Blue Mountains, with a friend who loved to walk – in the mountains. ‘Shall we do the Undercliff Walk?’ And suddenly the remembered feeling of being terrified of falling from the path to my death was back, vivid. I had a choice, clear and simple. ‘Yes.’ And the walk was an absolute delight, even that part that I had remembered with such fear.
When we returned home to Tassie, we had some pruning to do on the Chinese Elm. I found myself at the top of the extension ladder, balanced against a high branch, wielding the pruning saw, when I suddenly realized what I was doing. No fear – just a smile, a mental shake of the head at myself and gratitude. Next year, I noticed the same thing, this time when leaning out over the roof’s edge trying to cut branches hanging over the power line. Same response.
I don’t know at what level these changes are taking place – it is beyond or my conscious awareness. It is as though, when I exercise what is above the surface, the thread that runs down to the roots in me comes free. And whatever else has grown from that root comes free also. I don’t understand it, but it is working for me.
I lost my reading glasses last night. Annoying. Without them, I have to squint at anything I read close-up. We had driven to Launceston in the afternoon, with a number of stops, to drop two friends at the airport, then driven home in the dark. So I searched my clothes; I searched the car. I looked on the benches and table-tops where I might have put them on my return. Nothing. Do I start phoning the café, the airport, the friends?
No, I squinted, and that’s all I did. I did not enter into an internal diatribe about my failings, nor look for a way to shift blame. My mind, so used to being in charge, did not leap to making up interpretations of this little event. There was no rage, merely the ephemeral annoyance. I went to bed content and in the morning found the glasses in their case beside my seat in the car.
So different. My response to this minor irritation was so different to what it would once have been. There was not the wasted time or energy, no self-bombardment with intense doses of negativity. Why? I don’t know exactly. How? Through using a small, internal exercise given me in 2015: the 7Second exercise. In this case, the change was in place when I noticed the glasses were missing. Sometime in the last 18 months, I had worked the exercise using a similar experience, and it stuck. The change stuck through no ongoing effort on my part. It is a constant revelation to me and I much prefer living my life this way.
By-the-by, my wife also lost her (back-up) glasses three days ago. Before they turned up last night, there was very little ruffling about them or the inconvenience – as there once would have been. Living with each other is much more calm, easier.
This might sound like a long bow to draw from a briefly lost pair of glasses. True enough.
More to come then …
I wasn’t born depressed – I was born free.
Somehow, I picked it up, or learned it, or caught it.
Maybe the could-be-crack in me faulted under stress.
Maybe it was a virus, like the one that causes stomach ulcers,
or a cancer-like cell that hides in us all.
Maybe I looked down once too often and the fear stuck.
It doesn’t matter now.
I was a happy, cheeky kid, beloved and smacked often enough.
I was a leader, confident and unaware there was any other way to be.
It didn’t last.
At 14 my teacher thought I was overly serious.
By 19, paralyzing grey days strung together into months.
Thirties and forties – sliding into bottled oblivion.
At 43 I was diagnosed chronically, clinically depressed and started meds.
I was ashamed.
From pitying judgments, I hid my incapacity.
A temporary measure? No.
But years later I was sharing my story
with other sufferers.
In a new land, after a new start,
then I started telling certain other people.
A psych gave me ‘You weren’t born depressed.’
She was right.
I remember a childhood shot through
with confidence, curiosity, adventures of our own discovery.
We were a handful, my brothers and I,
tales of our mischief are family legends,
told with delight.
No malice in us. We were fierce little explorers,
oblivious to danger.
I still can’t pin down the fracture point.
I don’t need to anymore.
Sixteen years now, officially, and still I hope
to be doing it on my own one day.
The meds are no guarantee of
or well-lit days
Some black patches have nearly taken me.
Always there has been the shadow of
a wish that I could be like other people …
a shame that Life has found me not quite up to the job.
the laughter has felt forced or somehow too loud.
Now, at 59,
as from the corner of my eye,
as from a whisper partly heard,
I have put down or unlearned,
left behind, shrugged off or forgotten
the root of my depression.
Whatever it was, I feel free of it.
Could it really be this simple?
Could it be only the failing habits that remain?
Exploring this Spiritual Space – it’s a working title for what is turning into a maybe-something-more-than-scribbles. A blend of journal-memoir-experimental prose. Might amount to nothing – might not. Clarifying is the notion of giving away control, giving way to what is waiting.
It sounds terribly heavy & serious, I know, but no apologies. I have always thought I am here for more than the oxygen.
Have a good day.
Today is the anniversary of the Kapooka Tragedy: 21 May 1945.
It took me 5 years to research and write this book. I am grateful to all those who shared with me their experiences, from whom learned so much, and because of whom there is something of a literary memorial to these men and the grief that is still felt.
Writing the book has left its mark on me. Today, I feel as though these men are part of my extended family.
Review: How it Began: a Time-traveler’s Guide to the Universe by Chris Impey, 2012.
Not the sort of book I can read in an extended sitting. Too much information and too many mind-bending ideas. The style is colloquial which is most helpful for an amateur in the field.
Impey’s strength is that he does a fine job of explaining difficult concepts in reasonably simple terms with numerous analogies to the ordinary and everyday. So, to illustrate the chanciness of any one thing occurring, he tells the story of how he met his wife, that the reason his son – this son – is listening to him is because of the peculiarities of a monkey in South America. He describes the size of the solar system in terms of apricots and peas and football fields, etc etc etc.
It works. The strategy allows me to put a new piece of information up against what I already know. Like measuring the starting height for the Olympic high jump in my living room: I can then stand and look at it … and wonder!
There is so much to wonder at.
Thanks to Chris Impey, (I think) I now have a decent grasp of event horizons, black holes, why the sky is so dark at night, how little stuff there is in this universe, why the Big Bang stands up as a reputable theory, and so on. The sheer emptiness of the universe is truly astounding.
I am grateful.
The third section bamboozled me more often. I was altogether lost among the fermions and bosons for a while there.
Impey is a scientist. He grapples with the theological theory of the Intelligent Designer with respect and clarity. He presents a position that is straightforward and reasonable. For me, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t need proofs and arguments anymore; I believe in a divine essence/deity/God/etc because of my experience.
Why am I reading this book? What has it got to do with the next book I want to write? To quote Carl Sagan: ‘In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.’ (1980)