Readings from the Far North

Many of the books that I read wind up as the inspiration for posts to this blog because they resonate with something that is already on my mind, with previous posts, or because they set off new trains of interesting thought. Other books turn out to be simply good (or sometime not so good) reads. Today I’d like to catch up on a few recent titles that have provided more entertainment than insight. “Catching up” is an appropriate expression, as these are older books, published more than a decade ago at the most recent.

Many of the books that I read wind up as the inspiration for posts to this blog because they resonate with something that is already on my mind, with previous posts, or because they set off new trains of interesting thought. Other books turn out to be simply good (or sometimes not so good) reads. Today I’d like to catch up on a few recent titles that have provided more entertainment than insight. “Catching up” is an appropriate expression, as these are older books, the most recent published more than a decade ago.

A genre I’ve been pursuing almost since my first trip to Australia over fifteen years ago is that of exploration. Stories of the encounters of white men with the continent and its indigenous people gave me an important early context for studies of Aboriginal culture. They were often adventure stories more than attempts to add to the serious anthropological literature, which is how Syd Kyle-Little characterizes Whispering Wind: adventures in Arnhem Land, first published London by Hutchinson and Co. in 1957.

The publication date is serendipitous. Whispering Wind is the account of Kyle-Little’s early attempts to found a trading post on the coast of the Arafura Sea in the years immediately following World War II. Circumstances forced him to forgo the effort in 1950, and in the narrative’s final paragraph, he laments the fact that his trading post remains abandoned. It was in 1957, however, that Dave and Ingrid Drysdale returned to establish a mission settlement at the same location that has now grown into the town of Maningrida. Ingrid Drysdale’s recounting of that adventure forms part of the story of The End of Dreaming (Rigby, 1974), which was one of the early accounts of exploration, settlement, and Aboriginal-white relations to make it onto my reading list.

Between 1946 and 1950 Kyle-Little made several excursions from Darwin or Maningrida into central Arnhem Land, including two attempts to cross the Arnhem Land escarpment north to south. Having seen aerial photos of the “stone country,” I’ve often wondered how any creature other than a mimih could negotiate the landscape, and my curiosity about that was one of the factors that led me to this book. And Kyle-Little doesn’t disappoint, supplying tales of floods and droughts and expeditions fraught with the direst bureaucratic infighting. But mostly there are charging bulls and very scary crocodiles, and the author tells his story to maximize equally the sense of danger and his own foolhardiness. His escapades are usually offered in the spirit of a cautionary tale that keeps his adventures on a human rather than a heroic scale.

The truly heroic tales in this memoir center on an Aboriginal leader, and Kyle-Little seems to know that nothing he has done in Arnhem Land can compete for sheer drama with the exploits of a man named Mahrdei. From the early pages of the book, Kyle-Little sets Mahrdei up as his opposite number. Each is the alpha lawman of his race in the interior of Arnhem Land, and the author is determined to triumph. That is, until he witnesses a “crocodile corroboree” on the upper Liverpool River. At the height of the ceremony, Marhdei plunges into a billabong full of crocodiles and disappears while Kyle-Little watches disbelievingly from the shore. The suspense and thrills of this four-page chapter are the dramatic highlight of the book. Many writers have paid service to the bravery and skills of the native with lip and pen; Kyle-Little undergoes an almost religious conversion that makes his respect for the abilities of all the black men in this memoir entirely credible in a way that few other authors have achieved. So I won’t give away the end of the corroboree tale.

Many other wonderful stories enliven the book. The pace never slows down much, and the descriptions are vivid and careful and highly realistic. His trip up the Liverpool in the ship Amity is another highlight of his story, and perhaps the best and spookiest river journey I’ve read since Heart of Darkness–though in this case the crocs and the river itself are the hostile forces and the natives are the heroes of the white man’s adventures. Men who figure in other books about Arnhem Land in the 30s and 40s, like Wonggu and Raiwala, make appearances in Whispering Wind as well. Kyle-Little’s portraits of the indigenous people he encounters are as refreshingly free of condescension as his own adventures are of self-aggrandizement. 

The recent renaissance of painting on Mornington Island (there’s another show this month at Raft Artspace) led me back to the bookcases to pull down Dick Roughsey’s Moon and Rainbow: the autobiography of an Aboriginal (A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1971). The first remarkable thing to note about this book is that much of it isn’t an autobiography at all in the sense that we usually define the genre in Western literature. In fact, for the first two-thirds of it, the story concerns the Lardil people rather than Dick Roughsey. In this sense, it is very much an Aboriginal autobiography wherein the country holds center stage and the narrator is simply the instance who gives voice to the story of the land.

As such, Moon and Rainbow offers a treasury of information about life in the South Wellesley Islands during the first three quarters of the twentieth century. There is much about the cosmology and customs of the Lardil people of Mornington and Sydney Islands. Many of these cosmological stories have a decidedly earthy cast to them, and Roughsey doesn’t bowdlerize them for us. (I’m particularly fond of the way that the Rainbow Serpent curses his sister after she sets fire to his humpy–and him–after he refuses to share it with her during a wet season rainstorm.)

Be they stories of heaven or earth, including some about the conflict of the Lardil with the Kaiadilt from Bentinck Island, these tales are fascinating in their own right. But they also provide a great deal of context and background information for the paintings now coming out of the Mornington Island Art and Craft Centre. (There’s a new show of paintings by the Bentinck Island women on now at Wooloongabba Art Gallery. The much lauded, latest old-lady-painting-star among them, Sally Gabori, was taken as a wife by one of Roughsey’s mates, Thundaman, following a vengeance raid by the Lardil against the Kaiadilt leader King Alfred, her first husband.)

Many of the stories that Roughsey relates, of Gidegal the Moon Man or Thuwathu the Rainbow Serpent or the first people, Marnbil, Gin-Gin, and Dewallewul, are illustrated in the book by reproductions of bark paintings done by Roughsey during the early years of his career as an artist. These barks, executed in a semi-naturalist style, are less well-known than the author’s later genre paintings in acrylic that depict ceremonies or hunting scenes, or that illustrate the children’s books that Roughsey published in the 70s. Other stories illuminate the designs being painted now by Lardil men such as Arnold Watt, whose Dingo designs schematically represent the lifted leg of the male dingo, an important element in initiation ceremonies. 

The waterspouts in the work of another contemporary Lardil painter, John Woonun Williams, refer to the cyclones that brought massive tidal surges and often threatened to flood the low-lying islands in the South Wellesley group. Roughsey’s southern Lardil people, the Larumbanda, controlled the flood-making ceremonies that gave rise to these cyclones in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In a particularly fascinating chapter Roughsey details the preparations for and the execution of these rituals. After the floods receded, the Larumbanda often had to fight off revenge parties led by other Lardil groups in reprisal for the hardships inflicted by the storms. Late in the book, when Percy Trezise has arrived on the scene to document the traditional lives of the Lardil, Roughsey’s companions take special care to only simulate the flood-making rituals, substituting white flour for the ochre that traditionally generates the furious breakers that swamp the islands.

Towards the end of the book, Roughsey (whose Anglo surname, a respelling of “rough sea,” is a translation of his tribal name, Goobalathaldin, or “weather standing on end”) tells his personal life story as a cattleman and later a deckhand on supply boats circling the Gulf. The last two chapters introduce Percy Trezise, who started Roughsey on his painting career, giving him instruction and encouragement, and arranging for exhibitions of his work in Cairns. 

In the early years of their friendship, Trezise did extensive filming of Lardil traditional culture on southern Mornington Island and on Roughsey’s homeland of Langu-Marnji (Sydney Island). Roughsey’s descriptions of raft-making and hunting techniques as filmed by Trezise, along with the re-enactment of the flood-making rituals alluded to above, provide an effective closing counterpoint to the stories of the first ancestors that make up the early sections of the book. The ancestral hero of the flood story told early on in the book was named Warrenby. Warrenby was also the traditional Lardil name given to Trezise, and is how Roughsey refers to him throughout, thus adding one more echo of ancestral time to the present moment.

The final chapter gives a short glimpse of the work that occupied Trezise and Roughsey for over twenty years afterwards: the exploration of the numerous rock art sites of the northern Cape York Peninsula. Given the book’s publication date of 1971, Roughsey had only relatively few years of these stories to recount when he was writing. What is interesting is that although the sites they discovered contained some of the most spectacular rock art in Australia, Roughey’s stories are mostly about hunting pigs and emus, and not about the ancient art. I wonder if he felt those stories were not properly his to tell.

However, I found those stories in the next book I picked up, Trezise’s Dream Road: a journey of discovery (Allen and Unwin, 1993). The first chapter of Dream Road made me smile in one of those moments of cultural self-recognition. As early in Moon and Rainbow, Roughsey tells the story of the hero Marnbil and the peopling of the South Wellesley Islands, so Trezise starts off with a chapter entitled “The Peopling of Australia.” It begins “Until late Cretaceous times…” and proceeds through a quick summary of the state of scientific knowledge about the geology, climatology, and early physical anthropology of the continent. We all have our creation stories to help us find a place in the world.

The second chapter promised to start where Moon and Rainbow left off, quickly introducing Dick Roughsey as friend and collaborator, and I settled in with anticipation of hearing the rest of their story. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Roughsey is a minor character in Dream Road, frequently mentioned, but never playing much of a role. In fact, it isn’t until almost twenty pages from the book’s end that Roughsey comes out of the shadows on a single page in which Trezise summarizes Roughsey’s life after learning of his friend’s death from stomach cancer in 1985.

I don’t mean to suggest that Trezise is heartless or egocentric or insensitive to the enormous help Roughsey and the men native to the Laura region gave to the exploration and discovery of a significant body of Aboriginal rock art. Rather, the chief failing of this book in my view is that Trezise can’t slow down long enough to bring much of anything to life.

A few early chapters set the stage (after the science) as old men retell the stories of the ancestors–some of them remarkably similar to stories in Roughsey’s narrative, but somehow also lacking the charm of the earlier book. But with this background done, Trezise plunges into a breakneck history of three decades of exploration. After a hundred pages and what seemed like as many different sites, I found it hard to resist just flipping through the pages in the hope that something interesting would halt the flow. But for the most part the exploring parties locate a site, and Trezise dispatches the description of its decoration–three figures or thirty–in a paragraph or two and then ho! we’re on to the next one. The tedium of reading page after page of this overwhelms the frantic sense of excitement and discovery that Trezise must have felt to dedicate his life to these discoveries. And it’s too bad, because on the few occasions when he does take the time to describe a site carefully, as in the case with the Deighton Lady whose photograph adorns the dust jacket, he does a commendable job of conveying the mystery and the beauty of these artworks. But for the most part, one rock shelter blends into another. Although the book is well supplied with excellent color photographs, the clustering of them in two places in the text rather than near the descriptions of the sites they illustrate, combined with the repetitive character of the narrative, makes it hard to connect the story with the picture.

Reading Moon and Rainbow back-to-back with Dream Road was an interesting exercise, a contrast between art and science. The latter book is heavy, almost too heavy, with facts, while the former breathes a lived experience that is somehow far more real, though filled with what we might call “stories.” In the end, I’d say they complement one another nicely, for without Roughsey’s story, Trezise’s would be as dry as the dust of his caves.

Before I sign off, let me recommend one other book to have on hand if you take up reading this pair. It’s Paint-up , by Amanda Ahern and the Mornington Island Elders (University of Queensland Press, 2002). It is a collection of stories and paintings that fills out some of the tales told by Roughsey and Tresize, and it also provides a superb introduction to the paintings now emerging in the fine art market. It’s 100 pages of delight.

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