Published 23 April 2019
I drive through a muted pastel bushland, alone on a stony track, rough and hot. It is Judbarra National Park, Northern Territory, 12,882 square kilometers of scrub, where for millions of years beings have come and gone — boab, rock, sea, footprints, birds. Since, it has been trampled (even by the well-meaning). It became open-run cattle country; now grave or home to a few remnant wild Brahman and brumbies. I move slowly, a maximum speed of thirty kilometers per hour, in a stop-start progression along rocky 4WD tracks, assuming the lines of foreign dominance, yet knowing myself small, insignificant. A perfect speed to observe — stopping often, getting down on haunches, barefoot, to scrutinise tiny plants, or endless variety of rocks, or lizard tracks over sand. I see no one, and almost no creature, save a small white-dappled falcon — it watches as I climb a jumbled rock-strewn hillside, so that I can observe the sweep of the escarpment and valley, a fraction of its own aerial view. I seek its secret pattern, worn by water, wind, fire, time. The breeze up here reminds me of the cool morning air that sometimes comes before a hot day back home, far away down south. Smell is supposed to be the strongest catalyst of memory, but this is more than smell, it is a feeling across the skin, and I’m back there, a child. I try to see with a child’s eye, to feel with honesty this place.
The hills are flat topped, an expanse of pale slate-grey and green, patched with the dusty ochre and pink of the earth. I cannot see the track. Here are boabs, fat grey giants sitting quietly, leafless in the dry season, swimming in yellow grass seas. Some boabs are so ancient and knobbly they seem to be subsiding into the soil, with trunks almost spherical, crowned by a scraggly crop of branches, bone-grey and twisted. The trees look exhausted —or perhaps content? — rain-starved and fire-scarred, surrounded by a matting of vari-coloured leaf-fall in a rolling carpet. I can name very few species, but that does not stop them from being themselves. Large yellow-gold leaves are interspersed with smaller leaves of deep russet through purple and pink-mauve and terracotta, and the beige-grey-cream of gum leaves. Between flow eddies of palest yellow or mauve tinted grasses and spinifex, tall and thick in places, low and twisted elsewhere. The round blue-grey leaves of squat silver mallee release their scent, crowns blending into the blue of the sky. Bare, thin-limbed kapoks cluster in places, with their bright yellow blossoms and egg-shaped seedpods in place of all foliage. Long-dead hop-bush and acacia shrubs are wind-scalloped into leafless bundles, desiccated question marks dotting the land. My mind weaves through this seamless mass, where silence hangs lightly, and I cease to feel my own thoughts — they drift outwards from me, waning into quietude. After travelling through this country for several days, to emerge from the park into fenced cattle country is a shock — barrenness, shrubs eaten down to limbless stalks, eroded grey-dust cattle tracks starring out from water points and huge herds of sad looking beasts in the shadeless expanse.
Here is another kind of place, a human place that confuses me, makes me feel ignorant, brings up an unsquashable shadow. This place is Daguragu. It is a remote community, a tiny satellite of tiny Kalkarinji, some way up the track. I didn’t mean to come here, it was a wrong turn. I feel like an intruder. It is just two streets, a scattering of houses, worn-out, some graffiti, a mangy dog, calf and fat old goat in a crumbling one-swing play-ground, all surrounded by the rusting carcasses of a hundred-odd cars and 4WDs, disemboweled for parts, propped here and there on bricks where wheels are gone. An old aboriginal man and woman sit on the concrete step of their verandah and watch me pass. A young man in a basketball singlet and cap walks down the dirt road ahead of me; I stop by him for directions, “Nah mate, you gotta go back up the road a bit there, no shop ‘ere”.
Where did the feeling of peace go? Why should I feel it only in a place that I think I understand, that accepts me, because it says nothing? But that is a fabrication — the bush is a living web, but it can feel for me no more than an ant, or the moon. And I do not understand it in any deep sense, though I think I can feel it. Daguragu is just a place for people to live, just a place for them to be. I am not judged. I am only watched.
A beating sun and the final pages of Desert Solitaire brings questions. Is this a place of belonging? Do I belong? I wonder what kind of inescapable hypocrisy washes over my face, as I flee the swelter to sit in air-conditioned comfort on four wheels. Yet it is completely necessary to be here – a compulsion to go and see what’s out beyond the borders, under the skin, to exist in this world. Then comes the compulsion to write it all down, to capture a little bit of this alterity. But to Aboriginal people, this land is not otherness. I linger in a state of contradiction as the invisible life of the bush continues on, indifferent. I do not know where I stand in this map, both part and apart. As the hours pass my questions recede over the spinifex covered hills, drawn down with the insect-bright flash of the setting sun in molten amber haze. I hope I can remember this. And so I will travel onwards, into the future, so to find places and moments all new and unique but that may be triggers for the memory of past places. But I am already here — the search for meaning dissipates, I cannot stay, but for the moment I can just be.
Claire Moser is currently completing Honours in English and Australian literature at the University of Sydney. She is interested in how environmental issues and marginalised perspectives can be understood through the lens of literature, especially in the dominant global context of capitalism and instrumental valuing of science over the arts. In 2017, Claire was awarded the Maxwell E Arthur prize for excellence in Australian Literature, and her Honours research explores contemporary literature’s representation of Indigenous relationship to and perspectives on environment through an eco critical and decolonial lens, centring on Ali Cobby Eckermann’s recent poetry collection Inside My Mother.