Monday 4 February 2013
The belated continuation of my December trip to Western Australia! Perth is home to the largest inner-city park in the world, Kings Park. I took two guided tours through it, both were wonderful: the first was the Indigenous Heritage Tour, with a Nyoongar guide, and the second was one of the free guided walks, with a volunteer (and non-aboriginal) guide. They both gave complementary information about the park’s and, by extension, Australia’s flora, although I was glad to have taken the indigenous tour first since it was more in-depth about things that the free walk only looked at momentarily.
The photo at top is of a boab tree, which is also known as the baobab. They mainly grow in northern Australia; this one and another were actually transplanted in the park. They don’t grow as well in the southern part of the country, we were told, because the wet and dry seasons aren’t clear-cut enough.
We were told that the most emblematic plant is the kangaroo paw:
…but the ones I most noticed were banksia, with their saw-tooth leaves, and zamia, a plant that dates back to prehistoric times:
My favorite part was when our Nyoongar guide, Greg Nannup, sat us down to tell a short version of the Dreamtime, when the land was created – in our case, Southwest Australia.
I wrote down what I remembered of the story afterwards. I’ve only studied Haudenosaunee, Northwest Native American, Scandinavian, and Greek creation myths (including for my Masters thesis, so not casually!), and have only occasionally read Australian Aboriginal, so this was the first time I had heard a Dreamtime story in real life. My recounting probably misses some things, in addition to how much shorter it was than a true telling of it would be. Much like Native American creation myths, our guide told us that Aboriginal creation myths are meant to be told over a period of several days, ceremonially. It’s also important to keep in mind that as oral traditions, they’re truly meant to be performed. Reading myths on paper/written down “takes them out of their context”, so to speak, something I can relate to personally having grown up with stories of my Oregon surroundings. As fascinating as our Internet age is, it’s good to keep in mind that there is also a grounded reality to which our own spoken stories, whether everyday or more, are fundamentally related. In the West we tend to see the written word as the final word, which is not the case in other cultures – the spoken word is an embodiment of spirit (which is still hinted at in our languages, as it is from the Latin spiritus, breath, and speaking is in fact using your body and breath to create).
Dreamtime – Creation: There was a time when all was not a dream, but it was not reality as we know it either. The Earth existed, but the sky lay heavily upon it, and so nothing could come into a reality existence.
But the time was coming when the sky would be lifted, and there would be a reality.
In the spirit world — for that was what it was — there were many types of spirits. Tree spirits, animal spirits, fish spirits, flower spirits… and also human spirits. A gathering was held — several, in fact [this is one area in which the story has been shortened] — in which it was debated and discussed and eventually decided who would watch over beings in reality; who would be the caretakers.
Tree spoke first: “We trees stay in one place. We cannot wander the land as a caretaker would need to do.” And the other spirits also spoke. It was decided that humans would be the caretakers, for they had abilities the others did not.
Tree spoke again: “You may use us as you wish, but never destroy us all.” In turn, animals and plants alike offered to protect and nourish their human caretakers in exchange for balance. All agreed: “never destroy us all.”
One day, the giant keeping down the sky became angry with his burden and lifted it. Reality now appeared beneath the sky.
The first two spirits to see it were First Woman and First Man, but they were not yet real. First Woman tentatively set her foot down: it became real, and her footprints are today the deeps in the Swan River, Derbarl Yerrigan. A long strand of her white hair also fell, and became the white sand beaches along the south of the river. First Woman understood she could not go completely into reality, for her true purpose was as a spirit.
Meanwhile, in this part-real, part-spirit world, First Man roamed the land. The last First Woman saw of him, he had been picking up small round things and eating them.
First Woman also roamed, creating hills and plains. In her travels she came across small white spirits: helpless children. She felt she needed to save them, so she picked them up and put them in her hair as she walked the land. Then she realized: the children’s true purpose was to be born as real humans. By picking them up, she was not allowing them to become real.
Then a terrible thought struck her: there was nothing she had crossed on the Earth to eat. There had only been these spirit children; millions and billions of them. First Man had been eating them…!
Now First Woman was really in a panic. The time of reality was also nearing. First Woman replaced as many spirit children as she could. But when reality became permanent, she had to leave, with some of the spirit children still in her white hair.
She flew to the skies with them, having no other choice. Now we see her hair as the Milky Way, and its stars are the spirit children who remained spirits.